ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- With the Nomar Garciaparra firestorm still flickering, Theo Epstein last night turned his attention to the team he rebuilt by cutting loose his franchise shortstop. The Red Sox general manager swooped in during a trip to see his Single A affiliate in Sarasota and witnessed the three new guys he acquired for Garciaparra -- Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Dave Roberts -- play together for the first time.
They helped make it worth the trip. Though Roberts and Cabrera did little at the plate (going a combined 0 for 8 at the top of the order), Mientkiewicz (2 for 4) scored twice and joined his new teammates in playing flawless defense behind Curt Schilling, who masterfully handled the pitching chores.
Schilling rebounded from his first consecutive winless starts of the season to power the Sox to a 5-2 victory over the Devil Rays before 20,882 at Tropicana Field. Twirling his third complete game of the season, he helped the Sox win their first road series in nine tries since June 4-6 in Kansas City, an encouraging sign for the traveling GM.
The Sox have a chance tonight to complete their first three-game sweep on the road since April 23-25 in the Bronx.
"Let's be honest, this is a year in which a lot of things have gone wrong and we find ourselves in a bit of a dogfight for the postseason," Epstein said. "It's going to take more than .500 baseball the rest of the year to get it done, and I have all the confidence in the world that this team can go on a run and find our way to October."
The way they looked last night, why not? Schilling scattered six hits, including a solo homer by Rocco Baldelli, and a walk in going the distance as he improved to 13-5 with a 3.38 ERA.
"You want to be part of the cure instead of the problem," Schilling said. "Our starters have been pitching very, very well, and you want to keep that momentum going. The way all five of us have been throwing, we can put ourselves on a serious roll, but it's got to take consistency for us to do that. I want to be a part of that."
The offense delivered, despite David Ortiz serving the third game of his five-game suspension, as Bill Mueller emerged from a 2-for-23 slump to knock in three runs and Jason Varitek had a two-run homer.
The Sox were particularly grateful to Mueller, who singled in a run in the second inning and doubled home two more in the sixth. With Mark Bellhorn and Pokey Reese on the disabled list, Mueller has provided a boost by shifting from third base to second base just a month after returning from knee surgery.
"He's got a lot of things going on in his mind," manager Terry Francona said. "Everything is not coming naturally to him, and what he's doing for us is huge. Because he's playing second, it allows [Kevin] Youkilis to play. I'm not sure every big league player would do that."
The Sox defense, which had become an albatross, played error-free. With former Gold Glovers Mientkiewicz at first base and Cabrera at short -- and Roberts making his debut in right field -- the Sox made the plays. But Manny Ramirez made the play of the day by crashing into the left-field wall to rob Aubrey Huff to end the sixth inning.
"Defensively, we're better," Schilling said. "There's no question about that. That's a big thing. It's hard to quantify what it means in wins and losses, but as a pitcher, it's a big difference."
The Sox also unveiled a unique lineup, with Johnny Damon batting third behind Roberts and Cabrera. The trio went 0 for 12, but with Mientkiewicz batting fifth -- Garciaparra's spot -- the rest of the order clicked. Mientkiewicz, who had been struggling at the plate for the Twins, collected hits to start two rallies while Mueller and Varitek provided the pop.
"It was a confidence boost that [Francona] put me behind Manny," Mientkiewicz said. "I definitely have gotten a jolt since coming over here."
He also got a treat playing behind Schilling, whose three complete games are three more than the rest of the staff. Schilling's only serious mistake came after he repeatedly shook off Varitek in the sixth and misplaced a fastball, which Baldelli scorched for his 10th homer.Huff then launched a shot deep to left, but Ramirez snared the drive as he crashed into the wall.Ramirez chalked it up to hustle. "I didn't want to take my eyes off it in the dome because sometimes you lose it," he said. "But thank God, I made a good catch."
Huff was bemused. He alluded to Ramirez's bizarre cutoff of Damon's throw on David Newhan's inside-the-park homer for the Orioles July 21 at Fenway Park. "Out of all people, you know?" Huff said. "You watch that cutoff on ESPN about a month ago and you see that tonight and it kind of makes you laugh."