WASHINGTON -- On his way out of Nationals Park following the Red Sox' latest inter-league win -- a 6-4 triumph over the so-bad-you-almost-feel-sorry-for-them Washington Nationals (click here for recap) -- Dustin Pedroia stopped, fended off ridicule from Jacoby Ellsbury regarding his designer t-shirt and explained what was happening.
"It's the same all year," Pedroia said. "Stick to the process. It's 162 games, not five. One hundred sixty-two. Six hundred at-bats. Not 20."
But there is one hole in Pedroia's theory: it's not the same all year. Some of the Red Sox got pleasant reminders of that in the game which shall be known as "the night before John Smoltz made the baseball-watching world stand still".
A few months from now, few will remember the particulars of the Red Sox' 6-4 win over the Nationals (recap) and a rookie (Craig Stammen) pitching his seventh big-league game, or such encouraging facts as the Red Sox stranding only three runners. But the Sox' ninth win in their last 12 inter-league contests should be plucked from the others to show that it's not the same all year.
Just ask David Ortiz, Jason Varitek and even Pedroia. They are among those who helped us once again learn five new things.
ORTIZ DIDN'T NEED A PAT ON THE BACK...
...because if he did, the designated hitter would have stuck around longer instead of bolting fully dressed from the clubhouse even before the media was allowed to enter.
In the litany of reasons people are pointing to when identifying proof that the old Ortiz is, indeed, back, Wednesday night offered perhaps the best example. Sure, just the sight of a 412-foot, three-run home run (Ortiz' seventh of the year and sixth of June, a blast that pushed him over 1,000 RBIs for his career) should offer encouragement enough, but this was different than the DH's other six homers this season.
It wasn't the furthest of the bunch -- the 418-foot job off of a 96 mph fastball from A.J. Burnett would take that honor -- but it might have been the most definitive. The swing, the result, the reaction: this, Ortiz' first road home run of the seaoson, reeked of Big Papi.
"He's had a good three weeks," said Red Sox Terry Francona, referencing a month of June in which Ortiz has hit .327 with a slugging percentage (.709) that adds up to more than the first two months combined. "I think he's swinging the bat very well.
What's been a little hard is you get to inter-league, you get a day off, we're trying to keep everybody healthy. The last thing I want to do is get in David's way of getting hot," Francona continued. "I think he's gotten to the point where he understands what happened the first couple of months was very difficult. He doesn't feel like that hitter anymore. The only really bad thing is he has to look up and see a lower batting average (.219). He's going to have to live with that for a while, but as long as he doesn't let that drag him down, his spirits seem good, and he's swinging the bat very well. And if we get David Ortiz the last three or four months, what happened the first couple of months won't matter."
Along with the result was the reaction, that of Ortiz freezing time in the batter's box as the ball sailed over the centerfield wall. And, of course, there was the process of getting to all of it.
"When you're late loading and the ball is kind of eating you up, especially balls that are coming close to him, you can't drive those pitches. You're really just fighting them off. Now he's in position to swing at the pitch when it's in the hitting zone that allows him to hit the ball to all fields because he recognizes the pitch, he recognizes the speed of it, the spin, whether it's a ball or a strike," said Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. "All of those are things that become available to him when he's on time. When he's not on time his pitch recognition suffers, his mechanics suffer. He has to fight to get the barrel to the ball. Those are all things he's not fighting right now. Basically that's what I saw the first two months, I saw a guy whose pitch recognition wasn't what it's been throughout his career. He was chasing pitches out of the zone, he wasn't getting to fastballs. Now he's on time and he's getting to 96. That home run he hit off of A.J. Burnett, that was 96. Before he wasn't getting to 90.
"He recognizes it and he's in a position with his body to drive that to center field, which is where you need to hit that pitch. If the recognition of the pitch is later he probably cuts off his swing a little bit and hits a ground ball to first. How many times have we seen him hit an off-speed pitch to the right side on the ground into the shift for the first two months? He did it many times because the pitch recognition wasn't there or it wasn't as good as it is right now."
THEN THERE WAS VARITEK
Both the catcher and his manager thought it was a bit amusing that reporters seemed so intent on discovering the reason for Sox' trainer Paul Lessard working on Varitek's neck throughout Tuesday night's game.
"The left side of his neck is a little stiff," Francona noted. "Maybe the sixth or the seventh, he gets the hot stuff on it. He's been doing that for 11 or 12 days."
"It's OK," said Varitek. "I don't think you can play my position and not have things that get banged up. It's all right. It's nothing new. Paul wasn't necessarily working on my shoulder, he was working on my neck. It's kind of a combination of both."
The line of questioning seemed even sillier after witnessing what Varitek accomplished in the sixth inning against Stammen.
Taking advantage of a 90 mph sinker that didn't sink, a left-handed-hitting Varitek smoothly launched a 436-foot blast to right field for the Red Sox' third-longest homer of the season, and the third-longest long ball at the Nationals' home park this season.
"Tek's swing," said Francona, "that was about as far as you can hit a ball."
The blast snapped a 53-at-bat homerless streak for Varitek, while also offering some encouragement regarding the catcher's work at the bat during a month in which he has totaled just a .200 batting average.
"Even though he hit it 460 feet, or whatever it was, he took a nice easy swing and didn't try to do too much with it," said Magadan, who had to watch the homer from the clubhouse after being ejected for arguing balls and strikes in the fourth. "(Stammen) left it out over the plate and (Varitek) crushed it."
Now the challenge for Varitek will be to build off the momentum while fighting off the neck stiffness that continues to linger.
"I think it probably bothers him a little bit more from the left side," Magadan said. "I think there's some pitches he cuts off his swing a little bit on, but he's felt better the last couple of days after getting some work on it. But you can see it in BP where he cuts his swing off on pitches he kind of has to reach for."
AND DON'T FORGET PEDROIA
It is a long season, and, as the second baseman points out, there are plenty of ups and downs. It's just that sometimes you tend to remember those valleys, especially when you have so few of them, as is usually the case with Pedroia.
For the second straight game -- and for the sixth time this month -- Pedroia notched a multiple-hit effort, claiming a pair of hits to raise his average to .293 (.217 for June).
In 2007 the hallmark moment when it came to Pedroia's turnaround came in an early May multi-hit effort against Johan Santana. In '08 the slump was put in the rear-view mirror thanks to improved health. And this time we might look back and identify a talk Magadan had with his pupil in the middle of the last game of the Red Sox' most recent homestand, against Atlanta.
The hitting coach ventured up into the clubhouse during the middle of the game to find out exactly where Pedroia stood at that time compared to the same date in the midst of his American League MVP-winning campaign. Sure enough, Pedroia was hitting 14 points lower in 2008 with an on-base percentage of .322 compared to his .373 clip as of June 21 this season.
"I showed him the numbers the other day, his numbers last year at this time, and his numbers this year are better," Magadan. "I don't want to think he has to live up to (last year) every single day. So I showed him, 'These are your numbers last year at this time, and this is what they are this year, and this year is better. Your time is usually when the warm weather gets here, you get in the grind of the season, and you start doing your thing.' I showed him that to try and alleviate any pressure he might be putting on himself."
LESTER WAS BENT, BUT NOT BROKEN
The numbers didn't jump off the plate like quite a few of Jon Lester's most recent starts -- three runs over six innings -- but the dominance was still on display. All anybody needed to see were the broken bats.
For example: In the second inning, after a one-out walk to Josh Willingham (who unbelievably came in with nine homers and just 13 RBI), Elijah Dukes' grounder to shortstop was accompanied by the barrel of his bat (more on that later), resulting in a base hit. Then came another broken bat single, this one coming from Anderson Hernandez, allowing for an early 1-0 Washington lead.
"For any pitcher it's a good sign when you're breaking bats and you're missing the middle part of the plate," said Lester, who finished with 103 pitches and hasn't given up more than three runs in any of his last five starts. "The majority of hits tonight were broken bats. It's tough sometimes to swallow but especially when you give up a run or two because of it, but you have to tell yourself that 'Hey, I executed the pitch I wanted to and they just got enough bat or enough strength on it to get it where our guys weren't.' Like I said, it's always good to be breaking bats."
As for that Dukes grounder...
Red Sox shortstop Nick Green remained focused on the ball all the way up until he suddenly realized that the pointed end of the broken bail was headed straight for his face. The next thing Green knew, the ball was in left field, just beyond Dukes' bat, which was standing straight up and down, planted in the outfield grass.
"I didn't see the bat until it bounced right in front of me," Green said. "I saw it bouncing so I put my arm out to try to get out of the way and hit me in the arm, and the ball rolled between my legs... I didn't have time to get scared. Just one of those things that happens and you try to get away as quick as we can."
LOWELL ISN'T RULING OUT A SHOT
Mike Lowell, who has gotten four of the last five days off, said that if not for the interleague-mandated rotation between Kevin Youkilis, Ortiz and himself, he would have expected to play Wednesday night. But the third baseman also reiterated that the stiffness that first cropped up last Thursday in his surgically-repaired right hip hasn't completely subsided.
Lowell has been reassured by the Red Sox' doctors (he continues to play phone tag with the physician, Dr. Bryan Kelly, who performed his surgery) that the setback isn't out of the ordinary in regards to the progression of coming through such a procedure. But Lowell still is hoping that the next few days offer more encouraging results. Otherwise there is the possibility that he might put a cortisone shot into the equation.
"Obviously I've had a few days off after I got a little stiff, but I'm looking to see if I can get to the point before I felt the stiffness," he said. "We'll see what happens down the road. I've been given a lot of options and one of them is getting a shot."