What's this? The wild-card-leading Red Sox two games ahead of last year's playoff-caliber pace and hovering within striking range of the division-leading Yankees?
That's the ticket. After months of angst from the beaches to the boardrooms across New England over their wheel-spinning ways, the surging Sox last night returned triumphantly to the Hub and cinched their ninth win in 10 tries by stifling the Tigers, 4-1, before 35,153 at Fenway Park.
The victory lifted the Sox to 73-53, two games better than the 71-55 record they rode last season toward the postseason and a momentous seven-game showdown with the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. No AL team has won more games this month than the rejuvenated Sox, who are 17-7.
"Obviously, we're playing as good, if not better, than we were at this time last year," said the largely unheralded Bronson Arroyo, who did the honors in the opener of a 10-game homestand by rationing the Tigers only one unearned run on six hits and a pair of walks over 7 1/3 innings. "Everybody's pretty much healthy, so hopefully things keep going well."
The Sox finished the night leading the idle Angels by a half-game in the wild-card scramble and trailing the Yankees by 5 1/2 games in the division with 36 to play.
"This team has come together," said catcher Doug Mirabelli, who helped the Sox go 3-1 while Jason Varitek served his four-game suspension. "We have that energy about us right now. We see a finish line, we know what we need to do to get there, and that's everybody's goal on this team."
The hard-luck Arroyo, who has pitched far better than his record indicates, improved to 7-9 with a 4.07 ERA, third best to Curt Schilling (3.38) and Pedro Martinez (3.78) among Sox starters. With eight strikeouts, Arroyo increased his total to 117, also third best on the staff to Martinez (180) and Schilling (158).
"He gets overshadowed with the guys at the top of the [staff] and with him being a young guy ," said Dave Roberts, who helped to spark the offense from the bottom of the order with a sacrifice fly, a key sacrifice bunt, and his first stolen base for the Sox. "But he goes out there and competes, and from what I've seen, I've got nothing but good things to say about him."
The Sox, who had averaged nearly seven runs a game in 17 outings since Aug. 8, struggled a bit at the plate but found ways to win nonetheless. They did it with some timely offense, including some small ball that has become more characteristic of the realigned Sox since the blockbuster trade that sent Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs and brought Roberts, Orlando Cabrera, and Doug Mientkiewicz to Boston.
"With the big trade and the new guys coming in, we've all fit in pretty nicely," Roberts said. "These are the guys we're going to go with until the end, and I like our chances."
The Sox cashed in on RBIs from Roberts, David Ortiz, and Mark Bellhorn, and Kevin Millar put a ball in play (grounding into a double play) to help produce another run. Damon, Bellhorn, Ortiz, and Bill Mueller contributed two hits apiece. Cabrera singled to extend his season-high hitting streak to 11 games, a span in which he has hit .413. And Roberts made a strong impression, getting a standing ovation from the appreciative crowd after he sacrificed to advance Mueller and Mirabelli into scoring position in the eighth inning to set up the final run for the Sox.
"I was just telling [general manager] Theo [Epstein], `Nice guy to have on our ball club,' " said manager Terry Francona.
The bullpen's star of the week, Mike Timlin, made another crucial contribution after he succeeded Arroyo in the eighth inning with one out, Detroit's Bobby Higginson on second base, and the Sox leading, 3-1. Timlin first blew a third strike past the dangerous Ivan Rodriguez.
"They have their best hitter, if not the best hitter in the American League right now, at the plate with a chance to tie the ballgame," Mirabelli said, "and [Timlin] finds a way by executing his pitches."
Mirabelli may have helped by letting Rodriguez believe he was setting up for a pitch inside before shifting at the last second to the outer half of the plate. The switch appeared to throw Rodriguez off.
Timlin then got Dmitri Young to line out to left to strand Higginson, who had doubled to left.
At that, the Sox rallied for a run in the bottom of the eighth before Keith Foulke mowed down the Tigers in order in the ninth for his 24th save.
As it turned out, the Tigers scored their only run on a bizarre play in the third inning. After Omar Infante doubled to the left-field corner leading off and took third when Higginson flied to right, Mirabelli tried to make something happen with Rodriguez at the plate and Arroyo protecting a 1-0 lead. Mirabelli tried to pick off Infante at third, but his throw caromed off Rodriguez's bat and sailed over Mueller at third for an error, allowing Infante to score easily.
"A freak play," Mirabelli said. "It couldn't happen again if I tried to do it. It's unfortunate, but what are you going to do about it?"
Just what the Sox did -- score enough runs to forget about it.