Red Sox manager Terry Francona may have been raked over the coals in Red Sox Nation for resting three starters Saturday and Manny Ramirez Sunday in San Francisco, both games resulting in losses. Was there some method to his madness after all?
Last night, he had a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed lineup that cracked three homers -- including an emphatic grand slam by Nomar Garciaparra -- to complement seven strong innings by Curt Schilling in a 9-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins before 35,261 at Fenway Park.
This was a team in need of an offensive explosion after a 2-4 road trip that raised questions about managerial philosophy on resting star players and the team's unwillingness to bunt runners along and manufacture runs.
None of those issues came up last night.
"Very nice," Francona said. "Having Trot [Nixon] and Nomar back, we've talked about it so much, but that was a great example tonight. You've got one of the best hitters in the league and they elect not to pitch to him and you face another one of the best hitters in the league, so that's the way it's supposed to work."
Francona was referring to the Twins walking Manny Ramirez to load the bases in the seventh to pitch to Garciaparra with the score 4-1. Garciparra drilled reliever Joe Roa's first pitch into the center-field bleachers.
"Not a good feeling to have to walk the bases loaded for Garciaparra," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "That's not a good feeling for a manager. When you're in that situation, you're pretty much, as my dad would say, `up a creek without a paddle.' "
Part of the story was the Sox fielding a lineup that resembled for the first time this season the one that set records last year. Jason Varitek (2 for 4), who has had to bat higher in the lineup most of the season, was at the bottom (eighth), with David Ortiz, Ramirez, Garciaparra, and Nixon in spots 3 through 6.
The well-rested Ramirez reached base four times (including a pair of walks, one intentional); Ortiz had three hits, including a home run and double; Garciaparra hit the slam in his fourth at-bat; and Nixon doubled in the seventh inning and was robbed of extra bases in the fourth on a great catch by right fielder Jacque Jones. Ortiz, Ramirez, and Garciaparra knocked in eight of the nine runs.
Francona was hoping his lineup would resemble Grady Little's at some point. (Maybe Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, a pregame visitor, gave Francona a few pointers.) Of course, one outburst of nine runs and 13 hits does not a Murderers' Row make. Francona acknowledged that the offense has not yet hit its stride, but "if we stay healthy and run that lineup out there, we're going to have some long innings."
One such inning was the seventh, in which the Sox blew open a a 3-1 game with six runs.
Ortiz's double knocked in Johnny Damon (who reached base three times) following Mark Bellhorn's single. Ramirez was walked intentionally to load the bases for Garciaparra, who touched Roa for the fifth grand slam of his career. A Nixon double and Varitek single soon made it 9-1.
On the defensive side, Damon came up with very good plays back-to-back in the sixth inning to rob Luis Rivas and Cristian Guzman of extra bases.
"That's what I'm supposed to do," said Damon, who offset his one miscue of the night, a misplayed Matthew LeCroy drive to the triangle in the fifth that drove in the only run off Schilling.
"It just got lost in the sky," said Damon. "Ten minutes earlier, it would have been no problem. Ten minutes later, it would be no problem. You hope it doesn't happen, but it's part of the game."
Every time Schilling pitches, the Sox brass holds its collective breath, but his right ankle looked fine, as he walked none, struck out five, and allowed just four hits.
"It doesn't bother me the nights I pitch," said Schilling, who took two shots of the pain-killer Marcaine for the first time this season because he didn't want to worry about it wearing off. "This is the one night I don't worry about it."
Schilling also benefitted from defensive help, not only from Damon but also Garciaparra, who ran down LeCroy's single down the third base line in the second and threw out Torii Hunter trying to go from first to third.
"A couple of balls were hit real hard early in the game and we were sitting right there," said Schilling, a nod to the defensive positioning of coaches Dale Sveum and Bill Haselman. "It's one of those things that goes unnoticed over the course of the season, but as a starting pitcher it absolutely makes a difference in winning and losing ballgames."
On a night when Schilling was clicking, the defense was superb (except for one play), and the offense was mashing, Red Sox Nation undoubtedly believes it could be the game that starts the climb up the standings. Maybe it starts with a well-rested team.