The brains behind the Red Sox spent long winter nights calculating what it might take to end the franchise's 86-year championship famine. The more the Yankees loaded up -- hello, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Tom Gordon, and Paul Quantrill -- the more the number crunchers on Yawkey Way figured the Sox needed to win to seize control of the American League East.
By the time they broke camp in Fort Myers, Fla., the Sox had developed a blueprint for success.
"Our basic plan is for about 100 wins," general manager Theo Epstein said at the time. "That's what I think it's going to take [to win] the division."
They just might get there. Thanks to a remarkable run they launched like their own version of "The Guns of August," Terry Francona's rejuvenated rogues last night rode a magnificent start by Pedro Martinez to their 10th straight victory and their 80th of the season, a 2-0 triumph over the Rangers before 35,151 at Fenway Park that lifted them within 2 1/2 games of the division-leading Yankees.
"If we stay healthy, and continue to do the little things that we have done so well in picking each other up, I think we are going to give anybody a hard time," Martinez said after he improved to 15-5 with a 3.55 ERA, fifth best in the league.
After winning 16 of their last 17 games, the Sox need to go 20-12 down the stretch for their first 100-victory season since they won 104 games en route to the World Series in 1946. Never mind that simply by breaking even over their final 32 games, the Sox would top last year's 95-67 finish. They harbor higher ambitions, and if the rest of the rotation approaches the excellence Martinez flashed last night, the Sox just may achieve them.
They certainly possess the confidence.
"You can talk about being confident, but until you do it, that's what confidence is," said Francona, who already has surpassed the most games he won (77) in a season while managing the Phillies from 1997-2000. "You've done it and you know you can do it, and you're in the middle of doing it."
While Brown was busting his non-pitching hand in anger in the latest setback in the Bronx, a 3-1 loss to the Orioles, the Sox had their sights set on catching the Steinbrenner Nine.
"I have never doubted that we could win this division," said Mike Timlin, who helped stymie the reeling Rangers. "You don't set out to win the wild card. You set out to win the division."
A giant cheer erupted when the results in the Bronx were posted on the Monster scoreboard as the Sox moved within 2 1/2 games of the division lead for the first time since June 11. Not bad since they languished 10 1/2 games back only 19 days ago.
"That's the amazing thing right now," Kevin Millar said of the incredibly shrinking gap. "You can't predict how they're going to play, but as long as we take care of our business, good things will happen."
The Sox also maintained their 4 1/2-game lead over the Angels in the wild-card race as they forced the Rangers seven games back.
"We're not looking ahead," Timlin said. "We're just going to take care of the guys we're playing. We won today and we're going to win tomorrow. One step at a time."
On a second straight night when the injury-depleted lineup struggled, Martinez kept the good times rolling by blanking the Rangers on four hits and a walk over seven innings. The Rangers, losers of five straight, reached third base only twice against Martinez, who stoned them at every turn as he fired 117 pitches, matching his season high.
"He's been doing it for a long time," Texas manager Buck Showalter said, "and it's the time of year that guys like him and Curt [Schilling] step forward to be counted on."
The Sox needed all they got from Martinez because Texas righthander John Wasdin was nearly as impressive against his former Boston rotation mate. Often ridiculed during his tenure in the Hub, Wasdin all but silenced his critics for 6 1/3 innings as he rationed the Sox only two runs on four hits, including solo homers by Manny Ramirez and Bill Mueller, and three walks.
"He pitched probably the best I've ever seen him throw," said Wasdin's former catcher, Jason Varitek. "His location on his fastball was really good."
The Sox, playing without Johnny Damon (sprained right pinkie) and David Ortiz (sore right shoulder), were unable to capitalize on the rare occasions they managed to work runners into scoring position, going 0 for 8 in those situations. The bout of futility unfolded after they went 2 for 14 with runners in scoring position the night before, and it marked the 16th time this season the Sox have gone hitless with runners in scoring position (they are 6-10 in those games).
"It's just part of the streak right now," Millar said of overcoming the futility. "Good things happen when you're playing good."
The Sox also survived the latest lapse because Martinez was sharp enough to improve to 11-2 over his last 18 starts and the bullpen was all but untouchable for the second straight night. Varitek provided some momentum by throwing out Gary Matthews trying to steal second base to end the top of the seventh inning. Varitek also made a huge play by erasing Anaheim's Troy Glaus trying to reach second on a failed hit-and-run in the ninth the night before.
"He's throwing the ball as well as I've ever seen him throw the ball right now," Millar said. "That was a big out."
Timlin and Alan Embree took it from there, combining to hold the Rangers scoreless in the eighth before Keith Foulke closed it out in the ninth for his 27th save. The Sox have won 16 straight games in which Foulke has appeared since July 25, a span in which he has gone 12 for 12 in save situations.
Like Millar said, good things happen when you play well. Martinez saw it coming.
"I am pretty sure I wasn't the only one," he said. "I think a lot of these guys saw something in this team that really made you believe that we had the potential to actually break out."