Sometimes it's hard to see through the 24-hour seasons that the Red Sox seem to live through, but Monday was one of those days that offered a pretty good reminder regarding just how good life is these days for this team.
There will be the constant David Ortiz talk (at least until that next home run, or the day he puts Mario Mendoza's line in the rear-view mirror).
And some could focus on the fact that closer Jonathan Papelbon surrendered a home run for the second straight game -- a ninth-inning two-run blast to Joe Mauer in the Red Sox' 6-5 win over the Twins, at Minnesota. Or that the closer has had one baserunner-less outing since April 22.
But, in the big picture of life in the big leagues, the Red Sox woke up Tuesday morning in about as good a shape as anybody.
They're in first-place. After another solid outing from Brad Penny, the starting pitching continues to settle into their lofty lot in life. Despite Papelbon's recent hiccups, the bullpen is about as well-constucted as any in the majors. And the lineup -- which knocked out 16 hits for the second straight contest -- is first in the American League in on-base percentage, and third in both runs and batting average.
But wait, it keeps coming.
The Sox not only have one potential top-of-the-rotation talent, John Smoltz, taking another step closer to major league readiness with his second rehab appearance, in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday night, but witnessed another, Clay Buchholz, punctuate his dominance of Triple A hitters by carrying a perfect game into the ninth inning, Monday.
Yes, life would appear to be good for these Red Sox. This is one thing we was reminded of Monday. Here are five more ...
PENNY IS IN A GOOD PLACE ...
Other than feeling under the weather throughout his start Monday, all continued to be right with the world for Penny. The latest boost to the pitcher's psyche came in the form of a 5 1/3-inning outing in which he allowed three runs while striking out seven and not walking a batter.
"He would come out, throw up, laugh, go get them. He handled it really well," Red Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters after the game. I actually thought he threw well even if he wasn't sick. But you add on that, that's a pretty good day."
And good days have rapidly been becoming the norm for Penny of late.
Compare Penny's May to his April and you'll find evidence of a transformation. In five starts this month, Monday was the first time he hasn't gone at least six innings, and the home run surrendered to Michael Cuddyer in the second inning was the first the starter has surrendered since April 28.
In all, Penny is 3-1 with a 4.40 ERA in May, having struck out 23 and walked six. In April? His ERA stood at 8.66 with just six strikeouts and 11 walks. And it is that improved command that might be the biggest reason for the turnaround, with the recently-turned 31-year-old admitting that he had to learn that a walk in the American League is a whole different ballgame compared to a NL free pass.
Prior to his start in Anaheim, right in the heart of the transformation, Penny explained his new AL-induced focus.
"Avoiding walks," he said. "Staying out of the big inning. In the NL, if you walk a guy they will bunt them over and play for a run. Not here."
... NO MATTER THE PLACE
As well as Penny is settling into his life in the Red Sox' rotation, he also isn't oblivious to the whispers.
Penny has already been traded twice in his career, and he knows No. 3 could be around the corner. The Red Sox have a lot of pitchers, other teams don't, and when you're looking to plug roster holes that is an enviable position to be in.
"You don't do anything (with the rumors). Go out there, prepare to pitch on Monday and prepare to pitch every fifth day," Penny told WEEI.com's Alex Speier last weekend. "Just keep doing my work. Anything I can't control, I can't worry about. i've just to go out there and pitch.
"I'd love to stay here, but whatever happens happens. This game has become such a business, and we do have a lot of depth. I'll just go out there and work my butt off wherever I go. But there are a lot more trade rumors that haven't happened that have for me."
REMEMBER THIS NAME
In the short term, he will be the starting point for most American League MVP debates, even despite missing the entire first month of the season. After hitting the pinch-hit homer off Papelbon Monday (his third straight game with a homer), the catcher's batting average stands at .444 with a .530 on-base percentage and .914 slugging in 23 games.
Oh yeah, Mauer, who had originally been slated to get a day off after playing in 13 straight games, also has 11 home runs and 31 RBI, and is hitting .527 off of right-handed pitching. (A trend that Papelbon was rudely introduced to in the series' opener.)
"Mauer continues to amaze," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire told MLB.com after his team's loss, "walking in and hitting a homer like that. I don't know what you want to call him."
What you can call him very shortly is richer than even the richest of big league ballplayers.
With the Red Sox catching situation seemingly in a slow state of transition, the eyes of many hopeful Sox' fans have already turned to Mauer's contract, which will expire after the 2010 season. It would seem to be good timing considering the conclusion of the resurgent Jason Varitek's deal coincides with Mauer's commitment.
But, as is usually the case with when it comes to dealing with the free agent market, the usual buzz-kill awaits around the corner -- the Yankees.
New York isn't going to resist diving into the Mauer sweepstakes just because Jorge Posada will be under contract through '11, undoubtedly having no hesitation in turning its longtime backstop into a full-time designated hitter for a year. And with Mauer turning just 28 in what figures to be the first year of his new contract, the Yankees figure to be more than happy to dwarf the $12.5 million the Twins' star will max out with his current club.
Perhaps the best hope the Red Sox in regards to dealing with Mauer is that there is a chance he actually might not choose to chase the money all the way to New York. He is a Minnesota kid whose agent, Ron Shapiro, doesn't have the cut-throat reputation of a Scott Boras. And with the Twins moving into their new ballpark next season, centerpieces are going to a necessity.
There aren't many better than Mauer.
HAS ANYBODY NOTICED WHAT MIKE LOWELL IS DOING?
You might have forgotten, but Lowell was on the cusp of making the American League's All-Star team last season. He hit .297 with 13 homers in that first half, but was a victim of other teams' lack of representation in New York. While it might have been subtle, the Sox' third baseman's disappointment wasn't difficult to decipher.
This time around, Lowell is trying to leave little room for doubt.
After soaking in his four-hit day Monday -- equaling his hit total in 28 previous plate appearances as a designated hitter -- Lowell is hitting .305 with eight homers and 33 RBI.
Assuming Alex Rodriguez gets voted in, the competition for the hot corner spot on the AL roster is seemingly with three other players: Texas' Michael Young, Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria, and Russell Branyan of Seattle.
Longoria is a lock, hitting .30 with 11 homers and 49 RBI. Young has the edge in average (.337), while totaling just one fewer homer than Lowell, but only has 18 RBI. Branyan has three more home runs then the Sox' third baseman, while equaling his average, but also falls short with 20 RBI.
But then there is the back-story.
When Lowell hit a bump in the road in his rehab from hip surgery back in January there were probably some doubts. When he showed up at Fort Myers having to execute limited participation while holding off on the act of running down a baseline, there were probably some doubts. And when his gait seemed a bit unnatural throughout spring training there were probably some doubts.
Even at the outset of the regular season, when he was cruising through an April with a .310 batting average, there were probably some doubts.
It's official: When it comes to Lowell, doubts are now pretty hard to find. Not when you've put up those numbers while playing the second-most games of any player on the team (44), missing just one all season.
"Absolutely, without a doubt," Lowell told the Boston Herald when asked if there was a large sense of gratification regarding his ability to play virtually ever day. "I wouldn't say it's like proving people wrong, but I have an issue with someone saying what my numbers are going to be before I even do it. Or how many games I'm going t play, or (hearing) 'His career's on a decline.' I'm like, whatever, man. I understand there has to be some analysis, but I think we analyze sometimes based on pure numbers, and one of those numbers is age. And another (factor) is surgery and how many games you played last year, but I don't think that always gives the whole picture.
"So yeah, absolutely, if you prove people wrong in a positive way, it always feels a little better."
DAVE MAGADAN DESERVES A LOT OF CREDIT
The Red Sox' hitting coach received plenty of attention in the team's clubhouse following Sunday's 12-run, 16-hit performance. But almost all of the questions centered around one of the few discombobulated parts of the Sox' offensive machine, David Ortiz, not regarding the lineup's top-to-bottom production.
Monday the Red Sox totaled 16 more hits. It's time to start taking stock of the fact that Magadan is doing a lot more than just looking at Ortiz video.
He helped refine Jacoby Ellsbury's swing so that there was no more leg kick and the leadoff hitter's hands and stride would work in harmony. Ellsbury has a 20 game hit streak.
Two years ago, when Dustin Pedroia was toiling through a well-documented horrific first month of the '07 season, Magadan identified a slight change in the way Pedroia was holding his head. A quick correction and the '08 AL MVP was on his way.
Jason Varitek's toe-tap as a left-handed hitter was deemed problematic by Magadan, an analysis that has gone a long way in helping the 37-year-old become an offensive threat once more.
Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay sit as two of the most productive hitters in the game this season. Lowell is doing his thing. J.D. Drew has shown signs of going on another late-spring, early-summer tear. And even Jeff Bailey has found his major league swing, as was evidenced Monday with his third home run of the season.
Magadan works hard and he gets results. What more can you ask of a hitting coach?