Signs of a fun-loving team on a rapturous roll: Derek Lowe paying a goofy tribute to Red Sox starter Pedro Martinez by donning a Dominican flag do-rag, wrapping David Ortiz's long chain around his neck, and waving Martinez's toy red bat as the substitute cheerleader; Johnny Damon mimicking the injured Manny Ramirez by triumphantly pointing both index fingers to celebrate a nice assist; and Ramirez himself spreading joy in the dugout among manager Terry Francona's merry men.
Symbols of a wild-card-leading team winning its fifth straight game and its 11th in 12 tries. Evidence of a team sizzling toward September.
With Martinez masterful, the Sox overcame a strong challenge from Detroit starter Jeremy Bonderman and rollicked to a 5-1 victory before 35,032 on the steamiest night of the summer in the Fens. The triumph vaulted the Sox 1 1/2 games ahead of the Angels, 7-1 losers to the Twins, in the wild-card race and kept them 5 1/2 behind the AL East-leading Yankees, who thumped the Blue Jays, 18-6.
"This is not a boring clubhouse or dull dugout," Francona said. "I think sometimes when people view our dugout, they get a little different impression. These guys feel good about each other. They stick together, and it's certainly easier to do that when you are winning."
Boy, are they winnning. Martinez led the way to the latest victory as he enhanced his Hall of Fame credentials by climbing into 20th place on the all-time strikeout list (the only pitchers ahead of him who are eligible for the Hall and have yet to reach Cooperstown are Bert Blyleven, Mickey Lolich, and Frank Tanana).
"Top 20?" Martinez said on learning the news. "Who would imagine that, huh?"
Martinez surpassed Chuck Finley, his eight strikeouts lifting his career total to 2,614.
Even lacking his best stuff, Martinez limited the Tigers to one run on four hits, two walks, and a pair of hit batsmen over seven innings as he submitted his 19th quality start in 27 outings and improved to 14-5 with a 3.69 ERA.
"Nothing can be more fun than that," Ortiz said of Martinez keeping the streak rolling.
Nasty as ever under pressure, Martinez surrendered only one hit (an RBI double by Craig Monroe) with runners on base and allowed only one Tiger to reach third (Dmitri Young touched the bag before scoring on Monroe's double). Martinez credited Lowe in part for his smooth outing.
"He kept me loose the whole game," Martinez said. "When I snapped at one part of the game, he continued to keep me loose and make me laugh."
Lowe was happy to oblige.
"I told him before the game I had a little surprise for him," Lowe said. "He wore the same exact outfit the night before and got a win for me. I figured I'd do it for him."
With pitching and teamwork like that, it's little wonder Sox starters have combined for 59 wins, tops in the American League. Never mind that the Sox went a third straight game without a home run for the first time this season. Even with Ramirez idled by a contusion on his left knee, they produced more than enough support for Martinez as Mark Bellhorn led the way with a pair of RBIs. Bellhorn's double in the seventh was the first of three straight run-producing hits as Damon followed with an RBI double and Ortiz with a run-scoring single.
Damon, who helped Martinez by gunning down Omar Infante trying to stretch a single leading off the game, had an additional reason to smile as he scored his league-leading 100th run. It marked the seventh straight season Damon has scored 100 or more runs.
The three-run seventh for the Sox broke open a 2-1 game after Dave Roberts and Bellhorn each drove in a run in the fifth. Bill Mueller, who went 3 for 3 with a walk in returning from a sore right foot and ankle, scored in each of the rallies.
"There's nothing better than winning," Roberts said. "We knew what we were capable of. Expectations are one thing, but going out there and performing consistently on a nightly basis is a different thing."
It was almost enough to make Trot Nixon's new Mohawk haircut look fashionable.
Even Keith Foulke, the closer nursing a stiff back, managed a smile as he sought a comfortable position on the bench in the bullpen before the Sox spared him from answering the call. Francona said he planned to use Foulke if it were a save situation.
After Martinez's 103-pitch effort, Alan Embree retired the Tigers in order in the eighth and Ramiro Mendoza finished things off by pitching a scoreless ninth.
Martinez even had some fun with former Northeastern star Carlos Pena after Pena narrowly missed a three-run homer when he rifled a shot near Peksy's Pole with two outs in the fifth inning. When the ball was ruled foul, Pena threw up his arms in protest, prompting an appeal from manager Alan Trammell to no avail. Replays showed the ball veered just foul.
"I got away with a mistake, but not by much, maybe 2 or 3 inches," Martinez said. "I told Pena not to get himself thrown out by arguing too much because it was a foul ball."
Pena eventually went down swinging at a 3-and-2 changeup, dropping his average on 3-and-2 counts this season to .082 (4 for 49).
Then the Sox scored five unanswered runs partly by playing the kind of smallball that better suits the team since the departure of Nomar Garciaparra and the arrival of Roberts, Orlando Cabrera, and Doug Mientkiewicz. Either way, it was enough to leave them smiling.
"I think we kind of hung together through the tough times," Francona said, "so we could have these good times."