Win's a slam-dunk for Red Sox
Varitek-led offense helps DiNardo get 1st big-league win
Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek (right) and Orioles' catcher Ramon Hernandez watch the flight of the Boston captain's grand slam in the bottom of the first inning. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)
Perhaps it was the familiar and reassuring nooks of the nonagenarian ballpark or the elan of the home crowd that lightened and guided Red Sox bats over the last week. Perhaps they were just due. After that miserable journey through Toronto, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay, the Sox were hitting .228 (56 for 246) this season with runners in scoring position, a run of futility underscored by a 2-for-19 display April 28 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Yesterday, though, the Sox cranked out four hits in nine at-bats with runners in scoring position, none greater than Jason Varitek's first-inning grand slam off Kris Benson, powering the Sox to a 10-3 dismantling of a sinking Baltimore team before 36,022 at Fenway Park. With that the Sox concluded a 5-1 homestand in which they batted a sound .361 (26 for 72) with runners in scoring position and outscored opponents, 45-23, improving to seven games over .500 (19-12) for just the second time this season.
''When you don't hit with runners in scoring position it gets magnified, as it should," said manager Terry Francona. ''And when you need huge hits because you fall behind a lot it's more glaring when you don't do it."
But in this homestand the Sox rarely fell behind, and when they did they responded promptly. That was the case yesterday, after Lenny DiNardo (1-1, 6.17 ERA) recorded two quick outs to begin the game, then walked four in a row (Miguel Tejada on seven pitches, Jay Gibbons on six, Ramon Hernandez on six, and Jeff Conine on five). But, he bailed himself out with a vicious cutter down and in to Kevin Millar, fanning the Baltimore DH to leave the bases loaded and limit the self-inflicted damage to 1-0.
''To just stay in there mentally and not kind of throw in the towel, he showed a lot," said Mark Loretta.
Varitek, in the bottom of the inning, provided a cushy lead. The Sox had loaded the bases on a one-out walk (Loretta), two-out single (Manny Ramírez), and a two-out hit-by-pitch (Trot Nixon). Ahead, 2 and 0, Varitek said he ''was actually looking out over the plate. I was looking to hit the ball the other way. I just happened to react to it."
He was reacting to a fastball, way up in the zone, nearly shoulder high, and out over the plate enough to extend his arms. Varitek got to it, and got on top of it, hammering it onto the only vacant seat in the Orioles' bullpen (by day's end, most of those seats would be vacant, with the ex-occupants called in to lend an arm).
The grand slam was just his second homer of the year and the second major league grand slam of Varitek's career. He hit one other, in March, against Canada in the World Baseball Classic. In fact, Varitek went 113 major league home runs without a grand slam and now has two among his last eight.
That allowed some leeway for DiNardo, who needed 34 pitches to complete one inning. After the game, the ever-exuberant DiNardo said, ''I'd go out there and throw 300 pitches if I could." And, after an inning, he was on a pace for 306.
But he would not sustain that mad pace. He got out of the second inning in seven pitches and completed five in 94. He allowed only two hits -- an infield single to Gibbons and a Melvin Mora double. He kept the ball down, getting his five strikeouts on wicked cutters bearing down and in on righthanded hitters.
Except for Mora's two-base hit, DiNardo didn't allow a ball out of the infield. Of his 15 outs, 10 were grounders. All of this added up to the first win of his big-league career, a milestone lost on DiNardo until after the game.
''I was just sitting on the couch looking through the game notes [and realized it]," he said. ''Really cool."
The offense, of course, supported him immensely. The Sox batted around in the fifth, tacking on five more runs. Kevin Youkilis (3 for 5, two runs) began the inning with a single. Loretta (3 for 4, 2 runs) singled to left. David Ortiz (1 for his last 20) whiffed, but Ramírez followed with a single, loading the bases with one out.
Nixon calmly faded a two-run double into the left-field corner, increasing the lead to 7-2. Benson then intentionally walked Varitek, reloading the bases for doubles machine Mike Lowell. He delivered another, his major league-leading 17th, sending a Benson changeup on a hop off the Wall in left-center, scoring two more for a 9-2 lead and knocking Benson (4-2, 3.32 ERA coming into yesterday) out of the game.
Lowell, on the homestand, hit .429 (9 for 21) with six doubles, six RBIs, six runs, and four walks, improving his average to .339. Of his 17 doubles, 14 have come at Fenway, 12 to left-center field, left field, or down the line. He has twice as many doubles (14) as he does singles (7) at Fenway this year.
''I just want to hit the ball hard," he said. ''Especially this week a lot were down the line. I really don't think a lot about the wall, man. I know that a lot of righthanded pull hitters think about it. I really don't. I take the same approach [as elsewhere].
''If anything, I know you don't have to crush the ball to hit the wall. At Pro Player [Stadium in Florida] I needed to lay into it in order to hit it into the wall or over. [The Monster] makes me stay on the ball a little bit longer."
Spoken by one, presumably for all.