When it began, the Red Sox were 5 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the American League East and tied with Anaheim for the wild-card lead.
When it ended, this nigh-perfect 10-game Fenway frolic in which a sellout crowd of 34,652 reluctantly bade farewell yesterday to the Sons of Terry Francona as they polished off the Texas Rangers, 6-5, and loaded up the wagons for a westward, ho, journey to Oakland and Seattle, the Sox had trimmed another three games off the Bombers' lead, and had taken a commanding position in the wild card, with the Angels 3 1/2 games in arrears and the fading Rangers seven back.
"A phenomenal homestand -- phenomenal," said pitcher Curt Schilling, who came within two outs -- and Michael Young's second home run of the afternoon -- from recording a complete game to go along with his league-best 18th win and third 10-strikeout performance of 2004.
"We played such good baseball in every aspect. I just feel we're such a good team right now we can win with pitching, hitting, defense, bullpen, whatever we need. That's what championship teams do -- they beat you in a multitude of ways."
In winning nine of 10 games while parked here -- four straight from the Tigers, a three-game sweep of an Angels team that had been on a similar roll before coming to town, and two of three from the Rangers, a team in last-stand mode, the Sox hit a sizzling .316 and registered an ERA of 3.40. That number would have been nearly a half-point lower if the Rangers hadn't hit Schilling and Keith Foulke with a four-spot in the ninth inning. Two runs came on Young's 18th home run of the season off Schilling, who came into the ninth with a three-hitter, and two more came off Foulke, who gave up three straight hits, including a two-run double by pinch hitter Dave Dellucci, before Kevin Mench lined softly to second base to end it.
"It got a little more interesting than we hoped for," Francona said. "The ninth inning got a little scary for us, but there were a lot of good things that happened up to that point. Gabe Kapler got a big hit to extend the lead, and that's something we talk about all the time, and it helped us win the game today."
Kapler, a last-minute replacement for Johnny Damon, singled home two runs in the seventh, extending a 4-1 lead fashioned in big part around a double by David Ortiz in the Sox' two-run third and Ortiz's 35th home run of the season, which came on a 3-and-0 pitch from Rangers starter Ryan Drese in the fifth. Damon took batting practice yesterday but couldn't grip the bat properly and told Francona he'd be better off not playing. An MRI showed no ligament damage to his jammed right pinkie, and Damon said it's his intention to play tonight in Oakland, Calif., where the Sox begin a three-game series against a team they'd be opening the playoffs against if the season ended now, just as they did a year ago.
The Sox have been virtually unbeatable at home all season -- 18-6 in 24 series at Fenway Park and 49-22 on Yawkey Way, a winning percentage of .690. Only Oakland (45-19, .703) has been better at home, and the A's will be entertaining the Sox for the first time since Derek Lowe bid them farewell with a gesture even he admitted later was in poor taste. Will the A's fans make life miserable for Lowe, who is scheduled to pitch tomorrow night and has had more than one wacky night in the Bay Area, including the time a cartwheeling streaker interrupted one start and left him laughing on the hill? "They're going to make life miserable for all of us," Damon said. "That's just the way those fans are. It's all in good fun."
Because of the concussion Damon sustained in a collision with Damian Jackson in Game 5 of the division series, he was not on hand to witness Lowe's hand chop to a delicate spot of his anatomy, while turned toward the A's dugout.
"We played them earlier this year [at Fenway]," Damon said. "There wasn't much ill will toward us. They put it past them. What they're trying to do is beat us. They've got to forget about that. If that's what they're thinking, then they're in trouble."
What has become abundantly clear in this summer of '04 -- and hasn't been talked about enough -- is the relentless way the Sox' lineup attacks the opposition's starting pitchers. Drese, the Rangers' ace who had the Sox 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position through two innings, Boston's first run scoring on Bill Mueller's infield out after a single by Kevin Millar and double by Orlando Cabrera, is only the latest victim.
The Sox simply wore down Drese, who labored through a 36-pitch third inning, one in which he issued a bases-loaded walk to Millar after a 2-and-2 call from umpire Phil Cuzzi went against him.
But if the game didn't turn on that pitch, the numbers say it almost certainly would have been another. Consider this offering from the Maniacal One, Chuck Waseleski: Starting pitchers who have faced the Sox this season are 32-64 with a 6.17 ERA, the highest in the majors and three-quarters of a run worse than anyone else (the Yankees are 5.43). At Fenway, opposing starters are a staggering 14-38, with an ERA of 6.83. Just as important, the Sox make certain those starters don't stick around long, an average of 5.37 innings, the fewest in the majors. In Fenway, the showers are turned on even earlier -- it's 5.10 innings on average.
How often has a starter defied those numbers at Fenway? This one is hard to believe: Mark Buerhle of the White Sox is the only opposition starter this season who has pitched at least seven innings on Yawkey Way and come away with a victory. Home and away, opposing starters have gone seven or more against the Sox just 17 times in 135 games, the fewest in the majors. The Giants and Astros are next at 35, more than twice as many times as the Sox. You get into the bullpen against second-tier pitching, you're going to score a lot of runs. "I said this would be a good opportunity for us," Francona said of the homestand, "and we took advantage of it. We've played well at home all year and we did what we were supposed to do on this homestand. And now we go on the road. It's going to be a tough trip, but we have to go out and take care of business and take advantage of what we've done so far."
Don't ask Mueller, he said, about what the Sox have done so far. "We've still got all of September to play," he said. "I don't put a season in perspective until after it's over. This is still a work in progress. We just have to go out and compete and play our butts off.
"I keep playing until 1), they tell me we're going to the playoffs, or 2), we're going home."