BALTIMORE -- It would be somewhat misleading to suggest that everything is beer and skittles for the Red Sox’ offense. The Boston lineup managed to push just four runs across the plate on a night when they got 13 hits. The Sox stranded a season-high 15 baserunners.
And yet, it seems as if a corner has been turned. The team’s epic slump to start the second half – which included a six-game run of scoring three or fewer runs – may have subsided.
Following the Sox’ 4-0 shutout win over the Orioles (recap), the Sox have now scored 40 runs in their last six games, and players who could not buy hits are now getting them in bunches. In that regard, the identity of the Orioles’ starter on Saturday bears some notice.
Rookie David Hernandez dominated the Sox in Boston last week, allowing one run on five hits in seven innings. On Saturday, the Sox reclaimed command of the at-bats that they had been giving away last Sunday. They made the right-hander labor over 4.1 innings in which he somehow managed to allow just two runs on seven hits and four walks while tallying 102 pitches – or just eight fewer than he managed while recording eight more outs in his previous start.
“We did a good job of getting his pitch count up. That’s something we didn’t do last time,” said Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who jumpstarted the Sox with a solo homer on a mid-90s fastball in the top of the first. “We were hacking aggressively, hitting pop flies early in the count. We did a good job as a team of getting him out of the game and getting into the bullpen.”
That return of a familiar offensive rhythm, coupled with the arrival of Victor Martinez as a middle-of-the-order reinforcement, has restored the Sox’ confidence in their offense.
“We have a lot of depth to this lineup,” said Kevin Youkilis. “We were talking about how unbelievable it is to see one more big bat like (Martinez) added to our lineup, and how much that spaces out the bottom of the order. Our whole goal is to make a pitcher feel like he can’t breathe on the mound and say, ‘Man, I can’t get out of this jam.’”
On Saturday, Hernandez was the victim of that approach. He did a laudable job of limiting the damage, but the Sox’ offensive strategy – run total notwithstanding – was executed precisely.
Here are four other lessons from the game:
SHUTOUTS ARE BECOMING THE NORM FOR JOSH BECKETT
Josh Beckett’s dominance is becoming insanely matter-of-fact. On a hot, muggy night, the Red Sox ace delivered seven scoreless innings, allowing six hits and two walks while striking out five.
For some pitchers, the night would be one of the finest of the year. For Beckett, it was merely a ho-hum performance, yet another in an incredible string of a season.
He has now held his opponents scoreless in an seven of his last 13 games. He is tied for the most shutout starts in the majors with Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw.
“Beckett showed tonight why he’s one of the most dominating pitchers in the game. He’s throwing 89-90 mile per hour changeups or cutters, 97 mile per hour fastballs in on your hands. The guy’s just one of the game’s best.”
There is no question about that claim. Beckett (13-4) leads the majors in wins, and his ERA (3.27) ranks eighth in the A.L. That he should enjoy that perch is little short of remarkable given that his record was 2-2 with a 7.22 ERA through the end of April. Since then, he is 11-2 with a 2.28 ERA.
During that span, dominating performances – more often than not, shutout outings – have become so common as to qualify as unsurprising at this juncture. In his current run, he has essentially sustained his postseason greatness over a months-long period. For that reason, when he takes the mound, his teammates have a sense that they are all but certain to win a game.
“It’s huge. I like that,” said Beckett. “I like that on my day, they feel like we should win. We’ve done a pretty good job of that this year.”
THE DISCOMFORT HAS PASSED FOR VICTOR MARTINEZ
Victor Martinez can be forgiven his initial hesitation about embracing the notion of a trade to the Red Sox. The catcher/first baseman had spent all of his career with the Indians since signing out of Venezuela in 1996. The only baseball life he knew was with Cleveland.
Even so, entering this year’s trade deadline, the 30-year-old catcher/first baseman had felt growing discomfort in the Indians’ clubhouse. He had seen most of his teammates get traded, and so it was only natural that he wondered whether he was next in line.
“It was pretty tough. Especially when you have teammates, and you see your teammates going and you’re pretty much the only one left,” said Martinez. “Things happen for a reason. God does things for a reason. He brought me here, I’m really proud, I’m honored just to wear the Boston uniform.”
Martinez bid a tearful goodbye to Cleveland on Friday, but by the time he arrived in Boston on Saturday, he was virtually beaming. The slugger experienced renewed enthusiasm after going from an American League doormat to an elite team with playoff ambitions.
On Saturday, his introduction to the phenomenon of playing for the Red Sox proved almost overwhelming. Though the Sox were the road team in Baltimore yesterday, Martinez received an enormous standing ovation from the Red Sox fans who had invaded Camden Yards.
“It felt like I was playing at home. I haven’t been at home, but this looked like it,” said Martinez. “It wasn’t a normal game. At the beginning, it felt like I was making my major league debut. I was kind of nervous. But as the game went on, I was getting more and more comfortable.”
The switch-hitting Martinez demonstrated that point by dropping a run-scoring single to left in the top of the sixth inning. When he did so, the crowd erupted, and Martinez appeared to gain a greater sense of comfort at the plate that carried over into his next at-bat, when he lined out to right.
“You could tell, his first at-bat he was a little bit giddy. He was pretty excited. He wasn’t swinging at pitches he would probably normally swing at,” said new teammate Kevin Youkilis. “Then he got that first hit and then he hit that bullet to right field. You’re going to see a lot of that from him, hard hit balls to right field. He’s a great hitter, and he’s going to do well here. I think it’s going to help him in this lineup, too.”
KEVIN YOUKILIS IS AMIDST A SLUMP-BUSTING STREAK
When Kevin Youkilis went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Wednesday, it seemed fair to take stock of what looked like an ever-worsening slump.
As it turns out, that game was the aberration. Youkilis was amidst a rebound from his earlier downhill trends. The previous night, after all, Youkilis had gone 3-for-5. The following two games, he went 2-for-4 with a double and then 3-for-4 with a homer (snapping a season-long streak of 11 games without a homer).
On Saturday, Youkilis took his uphill trek to even greater heights, going 4-for-4 with his second homer in as many games as well as a walk. It was the third four-hit game of Youkilis’ career, a feat he had most recently accomplished on April 18. He also match a career high with his five times on base, something he had previously accomplished on April 7, 2006.
In the span of just five days, Youkilis has raised his average 18 points, from .291 to .309, with his 12-for-21 run.
“That’s just how the season rolls. You figure out things,” said Youkilis. “Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s just the old up and down of the baseball season.
That’s why we say you can’t stress out. It’s what a baseball season is all about.”
ROLES WILL BE A BIT FLUID FOR THE RED SOX IN THE SHORT TERM
It will take a little while for the dust to settle following a somewhat dizzying array of trading deadline moves. The arrival of catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez gives the Sox a great deal of flexibility, but also some slight confusion about roles.
It remains to be seen how much time Martinez will spend playing first, behind the plate or serving as designated hitter. The Sox want him to get regular playing time, and hope to benefit from lightening the load on Jason Varitek and Mike Lowell (who can sit on days when Martinez plays first and Kevin Youkilis plays third).
Similarly, newcomer Casey Kotchman will be relegated to a reserve role that will be new for him after having started in Atlanta. Francona admitted that he has formulated just a “rough” idea of how playing time might work, and that there will be some potentially difficult playing time situations for individual players. At the same time, the overall shape of the team is deeper and stronger for the new acquisitions.
“We’re trying to get better as a team, which is stating the obvious,” said Francona. “There’s going to have to be some cooperation all the way around, which I’d be surprised if there wasn’t, because that’s how our guys do things.
“We’re going to have to work hard to make this work,” Francona added in reference to Kotchman. “I’m not sure if that’s the first thing you want to hear from your manager, but I think it’s important to be honest and make sure this guy knows we’re excited to have him. It will be up to us to make it work, and that’s what we’ll do.”