KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It's all well and good that Delta Airlines is the official carrier of the Red Sox. But nothing seemed worse for the Sox in recent weeks than a chartered Delta jet waiting for them on the tarmac. Any tarmac. Anywhere.
Boston, Toronto, Tampa, Anaheim, you name it: If a Delta crew was there preparing to jet away with Terry Francona's barnstormers, the Sox were certain to slouch aboard after a loss.
So much for loving the way Delta flies.
But after a sorry stretch of five straight losses on getaway days, the Sox last night flew home from the nation's heartland on wings of joy thanks to a few unlikely twists of good fortune.
With Derek Lowe emerging from a funk, Mike Timlin submitting his longest relief effort in nearly two years, and two Royals pancaking each other in a violent, game-turning collision, the Sox found a way to salvage the finale of largely forgettable five-game road trip, 5-3, before 22,964 at Kauffman Stadium.
"This is going to be great," Johnny Damon said as his teammates donned their fancy travel threads and prepared to head home triumphantly and make the most of a day off today.
The Sox were tied with the Yankees atop the American League East when they departed Logan a week ago for Anaheim, Calif. They returned trailing the pinstriped ones by 2 1/2 games partly because their pitching staff, which started the trip tied with Oakland's for the league's best ERA (3.87), slipped to third place by posting a 6.00 ERA on their 2-3 swing through California and Missouri.
But no one could blame Lowe this time. After rolling up a 12.83 ERA and going 1-2 in his previous three outings, the sinkerballer showed the most encouraging signs in weeks that he may be close to regaining his winning touch as he rationed the Royals three runs (two earned) over five innings. Lowe paid for one bad pitch, a hanging changeup that Mike Sweeney clubbed for a two-run homer in the first inning, before the Royals managed another run in the fifth thanks in part to a throwing error by Lowe.
In all, Lowe surrendered only two hits other than Sweeney's shot and a walk.
"I know there were an awful lot of guys in the dugout awfully thrilled for him," Francona said.
With Lowe unable to return for the sixth inning because of a blister on his pitching thumb, he needed plenty of help to log the win since the Sox trailed, 3-0, when he departed after five innings. That's when things went wacky for the Royals, to Boston's benefit.
Silenced by lefthander Chris George for 5 1/3 innings, the Sox then loaded the bases on walks from George and reliever Jason Grimsley as the game began to break Boston's way. First, David Ortiz delivered his first pinch hit of the season (in three tries), lacing a run-scoring single to right. Then Cesar Crespo bounced a bases-loaded grounder to first baseman Ken Harvey.
"Never in my life," Francona said, had he seen anything like what transpired next.
With the 240-pound Harvey charging toward the plate and uncorking a throw, Grimsley ran smack dab into the burly first baseman. The ball slammed into Grimsley's head as he collided with Harvey's arm and both players went sprawling, allowing Crespo to reach first and Kevin Millar to score easily from third.
"I slid home and looked up and saw everybody was down," Millar said. "It definitely turned the momentum of the game around."
Pokey Reese watched from the on-deck circle.
"It probably would have been a force out at home and two outs," Reese said. "Instead it's one out, and it kept the inning going."
Reese responded by flaring a single to right off Grimsley's relief, Jaime Cerda, to force a 3-3 tie before Damon provided the margin of victory by slashing a two-run double into the right-field corner. The double was the third of the game for Damon, who smashed his first two off the fence in right field.
Both of Damon's doubles may have left the park had the Royals not moved back the fences this year by 10 feet.
"I'm a little mad at [Royals general manager] Allard Baird for moving the fences back a little," Damon said jokingly. "He took away two home runs, and I need those going into a contract year [next season]."
In any case, the Royals had four innings to recoup the runs. But they were denied by Timlin in one of his finest relief appearances of the season. In his longest outing since July 2, 2002 with the Cardinals, Timlin pitched three perfect innings to preserve the lead before Keith Foulke finished things off in the ninth inning for his 11th save.
No one was more appreciative than Lowe, who improved to 5-5 and lowered his ERA to 6.55 from 6.84.
"It was encouraging to settle down instead of letting the game get out of control," he said. "But I've never lost confidence. Win or lose, you have to just continue trying to get better, and that's my goal for the rest of the year."