The Red Sox made an authoritative statement to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim by taking two of three against their likely ALDS foe, and they are simply rolling both offensively and pitching-wise.
After a 7-1 homestand that pushed Boston’s lead in the AL wild card to a commanding six games over the wilting Texas Rangers with only 17 games left, the pressure has lessened in the Sox clubhouse, and the playoffs have become much more of a clear certainty than a question mark.
The Sox lost a half-game off their wild card lead when they dropped the series finale to the Angels on Thursday night, 4-3. A Josh Beckett wild pitch through Jason Varitek’s 5-hole allowed the tying run to score in the seventh inning after the ace was staked to an early 3-1 lead. Billy Wagner gave up a run in the top of the ninth inning that paved the way for the loss, but make no mistake about where the Sox are headed after this homestand.
A surging Sox team and a slumping Rangers bunch have placed Boston squarely in the driver’s seat for the final American League playoff berth. A collapse doesn’t seem likely given a starting rotation fortified by No. 3 starter Clay Buchholz. Sox starters have given up three runs or less in each of their last 10 games and have put up a 5-1 record with a 1.79 ERA over that span, covering 65-1/3 innings of quality baseball.
The Olde Towne Team is in a very good spot with only 17 games remaining. If the Sox went only 8-9 against competition that includes AL tomato cans such as the Royals, Indians and Orioles over these final two-and-a-half weeks, the Rangers would have to put up an otherworldly 14-3 record just to forge a tie.
The 10-game road trip that starts Friday night in Baltimore will give the Sox a chance to improve on a 34-37 road record, with some pretty real rewards waiting for them if they can thrive away from Home Sweet Fens.
“I don’t sense anything about it,” Sox reliever Billy Wagner said about the home/road disparity. “We know what’s at stake out there. We know how we need to approach these, and it’s a really professional team.
“I don’t think anything needs to said to motivate these guys and say, ‘Hey, if we have a really good road trip then maybe we could clinch it on the road.’ Everybody here is really professional, and they know what’s waiting out there.”
In essence, the Red Sox won their rights to the wild card with a dominant display of baseball during the just-completed homestand and now can begin making preparations for a postseason run.
Sox manager Terry Francona indicated that Tim Wakefield will be inserted into the starting rotation next week. The knuckleballer will start Monday against the Royals provided he lasts through a side session scheduled for Friday in Baltimore. Adding Wakefield gives the Sox a six-man rotation and allows the team to bump back each of its starters for a beneficial extra day of rest for Beckett and Jon Lester.
Expect to see Beckett and Lester — who are respectively at just over and slightly under 200 innings of work on the regular season — getting pulled earlier in games, and prepare to see Sox manager Terry Francona tread lightly with positional players such as Kevin Youkilis, who is battling a potentially nagging back injury.
The Sox now have an opportunity to breathe and set themselves up for the playoffs just as they did prior to their 2007 run to the World Series title.
Here are four other things we learned on a night when the Angels did nothing to dissuade the notion that the Red Sox are in their collective kitchens cooking bacon and eggs.
BILLY WAGNER WANTS TO TEST OUT HIS SURGICALLY REPAIRED LEFT ELBOW BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS
The 38-year-old Wagner was kicking himself after Thursday night’s game for the leadoff walk that came back to bite him for the winning run in the ninth inning, but the ball continued to feel good coming out of the lightning-armed lefty’s hand.
The RBI single was a bloop hit to right field that resulted from Howie Kendrick fighting off a 93-mph heater bearing in on his hands. There really wasn’t a whole lot for Wagner to hang his head about in a tight, playoff-style game, and he admitted afterward the stretches where his arm feels good are lengthening.
The tough moments where it’s difficult to warm up or amp up for the velocity are lessening for Wagner, and he admitted that he’s fairly enthused to test his arm in back-to-back days with the last two-plus weeks of the regular season staring him in the face.
“Some days are good and some days are bad,” said Wagner, who has a 1-1 record with three holds and a 2.46 ERA in eight games with Boston thus far. “There are ups and downs. I always feel good, but that doesn’t always mean that I’m throwing good.
“I don’t get sore. I don’t get tight. The battle for me is more consistent work, and when you get it, it seems that things are working a little better. The more time I have off, the worse I am. Eventually, hopefully, I’ll start working in back-to-back games and getting into more of a groove with my command and my mechanics.”
The former Mets and Astros closer is a hard-throwing reliever who also relies on touch and feel with his fastball and slider, and gains effectiveness with the more regularity that he throws the baseball. There’s been a great deal of patience while allowing Wagner to heal from the major surgery performed on his left arm at the end of last season, and they’ll forge ahead with caution.
That being said, Wagner is looking forward to giving his arm a test run over the final 17-game stretch to end the season and answer any durability questions before the start of the playoffs.
“I don’t know [if pitching back-to-back] is something they want to do," he said. "I just want to pitch. If I can help the team and I can stay healthy, then yeah, that’s great. I haven’t done it all year, and a lot of it has to do with the first game (of the back-to-back) and how I felt. I’d like to find out, and I’m sure I will here soon.”
VICTOR MARTINEZ IS BACK, AND HE'S BACK BIG
Victor Martinez was back in the Red Sox clubhouse on Thursday afternoon after clearing up his personal issues at home in Cleveland, and the switch-hitting catcher hit the ground running in his first game back.
“I’m really happy to get back and join the team,” Martinez said. “You never want to leave the team, especially when you’re in the middle of the race to get to the playoffs, but you got to do what you got to do sometimes.
“I was definitely at home watching those games [against the Angels] and cheering the guys on. I was definitely excited, and it was kind of weird. I’ve got no words. I was thankful for [Terry] Francona and Theo [Epstein] that I talked to them and they let me go take care of some stuff [at home] that I had to. Everything is good now, and I’m ready to move on.”
Martinez finished 1-for-3 with a single to center field and scored on Jason Bay’s home run into the Green Monster seats during the fourth inning, and he extended his Sox hitting streak to a season-high 16 games in the process. Martinez is hitting .357 with 12 RBI during that stretch, and he needs to hit safely in only one more game to match a career-high hitting streak of 17 games from June 17-July 5 during the 2005 season with the Indians.
BECKETT IS ON THE VERGE OF A CAREER HIGH IN INNINGS
The right-handed ace has put in a strong, wire-to-wire campaign in terms of making each and every start without any break during the season — aside from the All-Star break — and pushed over the 200-innings mark on Thursday night. Surpassing 200 innings clearly is a goal in Beckett’s mind each and every season, and he admitted as much while getting all mathematical following the loss to the Angels.
“That means you’re staying in games,” Beckett said. “You can’t average five innings every start and get 200 innings unless you end up with 45 starts. It’s nice. It means you’re getting deeper into games.
Beckett finished with eight innings and 114 pitches against the Angels, and he took another step in the right direction while pounding the lower half of the strike zone with two-seam fastballs mixed with an effective curveball and changeup.
Beckett didn’t walk any hitters and fanned seven Angels through his eight innings of work, and it registered somewhere between workmanlike and dominant on the Beckett scale of effectiveness. The 29-year-old was staked to a 3-1 lead after the fourth inning, but he couldn’t completely hold down the Angels offense through his eight innings.
The Texas fireballer is certain to pass his career high of 204-1/3 innings with his next start against the Royals, but the Sox would do well to begin scaling back on his innings and pitches over his final three starts of the season. The delicate balance is lightening Beckett’s pitching load slightly while allowing him to maintain touch and feel on all his pitches after regaining his control over the lower half of the strike zone.
It’s an easily tipped balance, but it’s something that could transform a fresh Beckett into a force to be reckoned with once the playoffs begin.
JUNICHI TAZAWA MAKES A PRETTY CONVINCING DOROTHY FROM "THE WIZARD OF OZ"
It didn’t have quite the oomph that the traditional September trip through customs en route to Toronto would hold, but it was another humorously successful year dressing up the Red Sox rookies in costumes prior to the final road trip of the season.
While not nearly as singularly outstanding as the powder-blue baby outfit complete with footie leggings picked out for Dustin Pedroia two years ago, or the Rainbow Bright-esque number that Jonathan Papelbon was forced to wear in 2005, there was an undeniably great "Wizard of Oz" theme to this year’s costumes.
The hands-down winner was Japanese righty Junichi Tazawa, who good-naturedly dressed up in a Dorothy outfit complete with the blue-checkered dress, brunette wig and red bows that Ramon Ramirez helped the 23-year-old attached to his wig.
Michael Bowden was set with a Tin Man outfit, Daniel Bard was the cowardly lioness and Dusty Brown was, of course, the scarecrow. Jed Lowrie donned some sort of black witch costume (perhaps the Wicked Witch of the West?), and Josh Reddick was dressed like Glenda the Good Witch complete with a glowing magic wand that had no shot of getting through airport security.
Then there was George Kottaras, who was given a sailor costume with no discernible connection to the rest of the Wizard of Oz characters. The pictures can be found online with minimal effort, and the debate can rage about how natural Tazawa looks dressed up in his Dorothy duds.