Kevin Youkilis has reached base safely in all 12 of the Red Sox' games this season, going 1 for 2 with a double and a walk in the team's 2-1 win over the Orioles, Sunday at Fenway Park.
Jacoby Elllsbury got two hits for the second time in the last three games, stretching his modest hit streak to five contests.
And even Nick Green continued to offer offensive highlights, ripping a double off the left field wall which ultimately led to the Red Sox' first run. The shortstop is now hitting a respectable .286 while sharing an interesting tidbit regarding his newfound success with the bat.
The toe-tap timing mechanism that Jason Varitek is trying to forget, has been fully embraced by Green thanks to his offseason workout sessions with the Braves' Chipper Jones and Brian McCann.
"At that point I was looking for something," Green said. "It's something I'm not changing, because it's going good. It keeps me from thinking about the timing of everything."
But even with all of those fairly noteworthy items, one topic dominated the Red Sox' clubhouse following their fourth straight win -- David Ortiz' hitting (or lack thereof).
ORTIZ IS CHANGING IT UP
Ortiz went 0 for 4 Sunday, dropping his average to .170 for the young season. But the attention the DH garnered after the game wasn't so much for just a hitless afternoon, but rather exactly how that result came about.
First at-bat: Strikeout swinging on an 88 mph fastball from Baltimiore starter Koji Uehara. Second at-bat: A weak ground out to first base on a Uehara change-up. Third at-bat: Strikeout on three pitches, the last being an 88 mph fastball at which Ortiz swung and missed. Fourth at-bat: Fly out to center field on a George Sherrill 89 mph fastball.
While Ortiz's batting average was even worse 12 games into the 2008 season (.070), it was hard to remember Ortiz being so late on mediocre fastballs -- especially up and in -- or so discombobulated on the occasional off-speed offering. All of it did nothing to diminish the whispers of doubt that have been circulating the DH for much of the season.
But while Ortiz had little to offer in terms of explanation, his hitting coach, Dave Magadan, did. According to Magadan, Ortiz's Sunday afternoon woes could be attributed to a change in his batting stance that was implemented before Saturday night's game. The main focus of the switch is to get the slugger's hands more quickly into the best position to hit the ball. As spring training, and the season's first few games, unfolded it became evident that Ortiz's hands were getting further and further away from his body, making it more difficult for him to reel them in before approaching the ball.
Sunday, Ortiz began the process of making the adjustment of keeping his hands in closer to begin with, the exact same metamorphosis he underwent while climbing out of his early-season funk last year.
"We made a mechanical change on him yesterday and I think in fairness to him that's a change he needs to make, but he has to be on time with it," explained Magadan. "It's a huge difference when he's ready to hit now and when he's ready to hit two years ago, or even last year when he's going good. So he's a little bit late getting ready, getting to the launch position, which is making him chase high fastballs and making him chase off-speed stuff away because he feels like he has to rush to get to the fastball because he's so late and when he rushes to that he gets out in front of the soft stuff.
"I have a lot of confidence that he's going to be fine in the next few days. There is that mechanical thing we've taken care of, now he just has to be on time."
So far this season, Ortiz has swung and missed at 25.2 percent of the pitches he has offered at (29 misses, 115 swings), compared to the 21.7 percent rate he finished with last season, and the 20.5 clip of '07. Still, Magadan, Red Sox manager Terry Francona, and his teammates are showing much concern regarding the DH's recent troubles.
"Yeah, he's having a tough time. The one thing we'll hang our hat on, as cold as guys get, and they struggle, and it looks kind of ugly, when they get hot they rise to their level and we'll jump on his back," Francona said. "Hitters are always working on their mechanics, even when they're going good. Sometimes you get in between where the fastball's beating you and you're out in front of the breaking ball and it's a miserable feeling. We've all been there and he'll get to a fastball or stay back on a breaking ball and often times a good hitter will click and then he'll take a breaking ball and just lean on a fastball. It happens. I don't know a better way to explain it."
KOTTARAS IS ON ROLL
Jon Lester turned in his best outing of the year, pitching seven innings of shutout ball while striking out nine Baltimore batters. As bullpen coach Gary Tuck pointed out, "It was one of the game's best lefties against one of the game's best hitting teams." (The Orioles are now 8th in the majors in batting average.)
Discovering a dominating Lester performance wouldn't be hard to find, even after his initial pair of subpar outings.
But one aspect of the Lester showcase that shouldn't be ignored is the presence of catcher George Kottaras. Including Tim Wakefield's near no-hitter last Wednesday, Kottaras has guided his past two starters to a 2.04 ERA (5 runs in 22 innings). The result of each has been a win in what is now a four-game winning streak.
It is a feather in the cap of Kottaras, to be sure. But, as Tuck points out, there is still work to be done for the 25-year-old backstop.
"It's like taking a course, you're learning along the way," said the Red Sox' catching coach. "You're always going to get tested. It's how many notes you take."
Kottaras passed one of his exams Sunday, making the transition from knuckleball catcher to the battery-mate of a hard-throwing lefty. While receiving for Wakefield he has to dangle his glove almost at his side, while slightly pointing his torso toward second base. With Lester a definitive target is given, with the entirety of the catcher pointed firmly toward the mound.
"He's athletic," said Tuck of Kottaras. "Georgie's athletic. Changing the stance isn't a big deal for him, but as far as game-calling goes, he has to learn the league."
Kottaras has been trying to soak in the information from Tuck, pitching coach John Farrell, other hitters and, most importantly, the man who many believe has a photographic memory when it comes to all things scouting report-related.
"I'm just trying to watch the game and learn from (Varitek), what he would do in certain situations," Kottaras said. "The biggest thing is just watching, learning, and being prepared. (Varitek) knows the percentages. He knows everything. Just watching him has really helped me."
And if you're looking for how Kottaras -- who caught Lester once in spring training but had also worked with him in Pawtucket two years ago -- guided his starter this time, understand that just two of the lefty's initial 25 pitches were under 90 mph. After that, starting in the third inning, the pair started integrating a healthy dose of sliders to go along with four change-ups and a smattering of curveballs.
"It was good, it was different," said Lester, who finished with 108 pitches, of working with Kottaras. "I've thrown to him a lot in Pawtucket when I was down there, but obviously it's a little different up here. But he did a great job both calling the game and receiving and working hitters and not getting too predictable. He did a really good job."
THIS COULD BE A MEMORABLE BULLPEN
Most everybody said this could be a strength of this team. It looks like they were right.
After Ramon Ramirez's one inning, and Takashi Saito's first American League save, the Red Sox relievers have now combined for an 0.86 ERA, giving up just two earned runs in 21 2/3 innings over the last five games. Ramirez, who pitched yet another scoreless inning, has been the poster boy for the bullpen's excellence, still not having given up a run this season in 8 1/3 innings.
Sunday the dynamic was put on full display, with closer Jonathan Papelbon unavailable for action after pitching two straight days. Papelbon reported that he felt good enough to go if necessary, but considering it wasn't until July 21 that the closer was used three straight days it appeared unlikely that the Red Sox were going to go that route.
Fortunately for the Sox, they not only have Ramirez, but at least a few others who have the ability to close out games, even with the likes of Hideki Okajima and Justin Masterson unavailable because of workload (Okajima) and altered role (Masterson).
This time the Sox went to Saito, the 39-year-old who compiled 81 career saves in three years with the Dodgers. Throwing his fastball at 93 mph, the veteran reliever showed he can adapt to not only pitching back to back days, but to his stuff and the environment. Using the shadow in front of home plate to his advantage, Saito broke off one of his 10 curveballs (out of 23 pitches) to get Gregg Zaun on a swinging third strike to end the game.
"With an unquestionable, unmovable closer (Papelbon), it's really encouraging to have the opportunity to be called to the mound in that situation," Saito said. "I wanted to treat it as the same mound as usual, to pitch as usual, but today I wanted to leave with a good result no matter what."
And as for his ability to pitch back to back days, which was a first since coming to the Red Sox and important considering he was coming off an elbow injury last season, Saito explained, "Two days (in a row) there's no guarantee I'm going to feel good physically, but it's my job to be ready to pitch even if it's on consecutive days. Today I feel like I was able to do my job, and going forward I'm not going to be afraid to go back to back."
While the result was welcome, the inning did have its bumps in the road, leading to two hits, a run, and the Orioles stranding the potential game-tying run at second base. But another example of the bullpen's strength was the Red Sox' ability to be ready to go with another viable closer, Manny Delcarmen, if Saito's day turned sour.
Like Ramirez, Delcarmen hasn't surrendered a run this season, thanks in large part to the rediscovery of a pitch he wasn't even confident throwing in spring training -- the curveball.
"I didn't really have my curveball in the spring, or really most of last year either, but the last couple of times I've gotten both my curve and change-up to work at the same time, which didn't happen last year," Delcarmen explained. "I threw my curve a little bit in the spring, but I wasn't on top of it. But the last couple of times I threw it for a strike when I wanted, buried it when I wanted. The night before last (Varitek) put the curveball sign down when I was ahead in the count, I bounced it off the plate and I'm thinking, 'Why can't I do this all the time?' And then I threw it for a strike when I wanted to. It felt good. Getting results is always good."
BAY AND FENWAY'S WALL ARE BECOMING ONE
It wasn't the biggest play of the game, but it could have been. With Baltimore's Nick Markakis at first base and nobody out in the ninth inning of a two-run game, Aubrey Huff launched a line-drive toward the left field wall.
Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay didn't give into the temptation of trying to make a play on the liner, instead turning at just right moment to barehand the ricochet and fire it in to hold Huff at first. What could have been the potential game-tying run at second with nobody out was stuck at first, now looming as a double-play candidate.
As it turns out Huff wouldn't have scored on the subsequent play, as Ty Wigginton grounded out to Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. But the play by Bay under-scored how well he has adapted to left field in Fenway.
"That's a good question," said Bay when asked if he would have made that play upon first coming to Fenway, last August. "It's not so much the angles of the wall but knowing what to do when you get it. When there is a runner on first, when that play happens your first inclination is to go to third, although in that situation it was pretty clear to go to second because Markakis meant nothing. But there are situations where you're thinking, 'Where am I going with this?'
"It's not the angles of the balls off the wall, but knowing of how hard the ball is hit, who is running, the situation of the game and knowing where to throw the ball."
And then there is how exactly to throw the ball once you figure out where it's going. Bay admits that even in batting practice he'll over-shoot the ball bucket when shagging in the outfield because he is not used to how close the infield is compared to other parks. That peccadillo was on display during the Huff hit, as Bay air-mailed the throw well over Dustin Pedroia at second base and almost directly to first base.
And after figuring out what is in front of him, Bay says there is the problems that come once arriving at the barrier in the back.
"One thing is that sometimes those higher ones you think you can catch you get pinned in close (to the wall). That's one thing that still isn't easy," said Bay, who, on the offensive end, watched his 24-game on-base streak come to an end with an 0 for 3 performance. "You don't want to pull up on a ball that hits off the warning track that you could have caught. And it is a little bit intimidating with no pads out there, going back you know there are spikes out there. I still haven't figured it out."
BECKETT IS MAD
It had been two days since Red Sox starting pitcher Josh Beckett discovered that Major League Baseball had decided to knock down his six-game suspension for throwing near the head of Angels' hitter Bobby Abreu to five games, but that didn't take the sting off.
“Everybody has to answer to somebody and my bosses told me this was the best thing for the ballclub. If it was up to me I would have seen let’s go through with this whole thing because I don’t think I deserve even one game. But when your boss tells you something is best for the whole group that’s what we do.”
“I don’t support this at all and if it was up to me we would have went through this whole process. But it could have eventually been a lot worse through the whole thing. Everybody has to answer to somebody. When your boss tells you to do something you obviously want to do what’s best for the whole team.”
If Beckett went through with the appeal and went so far as to have a hearing, MLB could have not only upheld the six-gamer, but done so right before a start by the Sox ace, threatening to have him miss two starts.
As it is, Beckett will pitch Saturday, leap-frogging Lester in the rotation. He will be working on six days rest. In his career, Beckett has gone on six days of rest of more 29 times, holding opponents to a .197 batting average.