Saturday, April 18, 2009

After early struggle, Red Sox now cruising

The sign on the door reads "TEAM PERSONNEL ONLY." Still, though, as Theo Epstein stuck his key into the lock and started to jiggle it around, the door didn't seem to recognize that he's as team personnel as it gets. It wouldn't budge.

Epstein started to laugh and tugged on the keys for a few more seconds. Still nothing.

"This is getting embarrassing for you," said one reporter who had just taken a seat in the second-floor interview room, the very room Epstein was trying to escape, hinting that maybe the boy-wonder general manager ought to give up and go around.

"No, now, it's me against the door," Epstein said.

He kept fighting for a few more seconds.

A loud click sounded as the key finally turned.

"Knockout," he said, and pushed his way through.

Metaphor much?

After the Red Sox stumbled to a 2-6 start and tumbled into last place in the American League East, it seemed like they were going nowhere fast -- much like their general manager late Saturday night.

All of a sudden, though, something has clicked.


The bats are ablaze: Kevin Youkilis had four hits on Saturday, including a double and a home run, to raise his batting average to .467. J.D. Drew reached base five times on Friday and had a double Saturday. Jason Bay hit a three-run home run on Friday and drove in a run Saturday. Even David Ortiz collected a pair of hits in Saturday's win -- he stayed back on a pair of breaking pitches, lining one to left field and looping one over the shift and into right field.

The bullpen is untouchable: In the 19 2/3 innings that Terry Francona has employed his bullpen since Tuesday night, the group has surrendered just one run -- the game-winning run in extra innings against the A's. Among the stars:

* Manny Delcarmen: 4 1/3 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 5 K
* Hideki Okajima: 3 2/3 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 5 K
* Ramon Ramirez: 3 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 1 K
* Jonathan Papelbon: 3 IP, 2 H, 0 BB, 1 K

Okajima, who got off to a rough start in the season's first week, pitched a sensational seventh inning; he whiffed Adam Jones on a fastball on the inside corner and whiffed Nick Markakis on a fastball over the middle of the plate before getting Aubrey Huff to pop to first base on a splitter.

"Even in all those 19 innings, we haven't overused anybody and we're still able to get some zeroes up there," Francona said. "When we talked before the season started, we hoped our bullpen would be a strong suit.

Papelbon had to work in the ninth inning on Saturday; a slap single from Brian Roberts and a fastball that hit Jones in the shoulder put runners on first and second with one out for the frighteningly dangerous Markakis.

Papelbon got two quick strikes on the Orioles' young slugger before he missed with a fastball down and away, missed with a splitter in the dirt and missed with a fastball up and in before he induced a fly ball to right with another fastball up and in.

"He wasn't commanding as well as he normally does, but the game also dictates that you don't just throw the ball over the middle of the plate -- especially with guys like Markakis," Francona said. "Sometimes you have to pitch off the plate to eliminate an extra-base hit. It ended up being a tough inning for him, but he came through it."

The Red Sox haven't even needed great outings from their starting pitchers -- save for Tim Wakefield, of course, who saved everyone's bacon with a near no-hitter in Oakland. Brad Penny gave up seven runs in the second inning on Friday, and Josh Beckett nearly gave a six-run lead back on Saturday.

No matter.

The Red Sox have won three in a row -- yes, it counts as a winning streak now -- and look as good now as they looked bad a few days ago.

The mission now will be to keep the momentum rolling on Sunday against newcomer Koji Uehara.

"I hesitate to say (that the bats are coming around)," Francona said, "because when you do, the next day's starter does something you don't want him to. But we did some good things early, put pressure on them, made (Baltimore starting pitcher Chad) Eaton work. Even a couple of times when we didn't score, like Jason Bay's swing in the eighth there, we had a chance to spread it out."

No comments: