Five straight wins and the best record in baseball (36-15), but when Terry Francona surveys the Red Sox clubhouse, what does he see?
"A dozen or so below-average cribbage players," the manager said.
His players would acknowledge his superiority, he said, in this game of cards and pegs. "By far the best," he said, "if they're being honest."
Josh Beckett had more time than he would have liked to sharpen his card game, having spent two weeks on the disabled list because of torn skin on the middle finger of his pitching hand. But back to dealing at the game he plays best, Beckett kept alive his streak of winning hands, shutting down the Indians on two runs and three hits in seven innings in a 4-2 win last night at Fenway Park.
"It's always in the back of your mind," Beckett said of doubts he might have entertained about how his finger would hold up. "That was one of the things I definitely worked on in the last three or four days, convincing myself that I'm fine, my finger's fine."
Beckett, with relief help from Brendan Donnelly, Javier Lopez, and Hideki Okajima, remained undefeated at 8-0, winning for the first time since May 8, thanks in considerable measure to Kevin Youkilis, for whom the hits just keep coming.
Youkilis extended his hitting streak to 21 games when he doubled home Julio Lugo (bunt single) in the first, then homered in the seventh. An impressive component of Youkilis's streak: He now has nine straight multihit games (19 for 40, .475). In the last 50 years, only one Sox player, Jim Rice, has had as many consecutive multiple-hit games. Rice had nine in 1978.
In the last 15 years, only two big leaguers have had longer streaks of multiple-hit games: Bernie Williams of the Yankees (2002) and Chuck Knoblauch of the Twins (1996) had 10 such games.
A confidence game?
"Anything in life is confidence," Youkilis said. "Ask anybody in any job they do, and confidence is the biggest thing that makes people succeed. The superstars in this game don't go up there and question themselves.
"I'm just going pitch to pitch. There are going to be some times I don't have good at-bats. Other times I'll have good at-bats and no results. There will be times that will not be a good at-bat, I'll swing at something, and get a hit. It's a crazy game. You've got to go day to day, pitch by pitch."
Jason Varitek also homered, and Mike Lowell doubled and came around to score on three straight walks, the last to Dustin Pedroia, as the Sox won their second straight over the Indians, who began this series as the highest-scoring team in the American League but have managed a total of five runs the last two nights.
They were held scoreless by Beckett until the seventh, when Jhonny Peralta singled and scored on a triple by Travis Hafner that took a weird bounce and careened around J.D. Drew in the right-field corner. Hafner scored on an infield out to halve Boston's lead to 4-2.
Donnelly relieved Beckett and got two outs in the eighth. But he also hit Ryan Garko with a pitch and gave up a two-out pinch single to Casey Blake. Francona went to the lefthander Lopez, who induced Grady Sizemore, the Tribe's Sports Illustrated cover boy, to roll out to second.
Sizemore made a terrific running catch to take extra bases away from Wily Mo Peña in the second inning, but he is hitless in seven at-bats this series, with five strikeouts. Beckett struck him out all three times he faced him last night, and Curt Schilling got him twice the night before.
Asked to analyze the team's success in neutralizing Sizemore, Francona said, "I'd rather do it after tomorrow. He's a pretty good hitter. I'll feel a little more comfortable after tomorrow.
"But Javy keeps coming in games as a lefthanded specialist, and every time we need a third out or a ground ball in the middle of an inning, he's been getting it."
Before the game, Okajima came face to face with a Hall of Famer, Dennis Eckersley, who presented him his Rookie of the Month award for April. In the ninth inning, he stood in again for the Sox' All-Star closer, Jonathan Papelbon, and posted his fourth save in four chances.
After giving up runs in two of his previous three appearances, Okajima was dominating again, issuing a one-out walk to Travis Hafner before striking out Victor Martinez and Trot Nixon.
Whether he's setting up or closing, Okajima said, he takes the same approach.
"It doesn't matter if it's the eighth inning or ninth inning, I take it one out at a time," Okajima said through interpreter Jeff Yamaguchi. "Especially with the first batter. I don't want the first batter to get on base, and I don't want to give up a home run."
The runs he gave up? "At this point, I'm tired a little bit," he said. "I'm just a human being. I'm not a machine. I get hit.
"But I just try to minimize the damage. If the team wins, fine."
Youkilis golfed an 0-and-2 pitch from lefty Jeremy Sowers off the Monster for a run-scoring double in the first inning. Starting off his night with a hit is nothing new for Youkilis: According to statistician Chuck Waseleski, Youkilis is batting .513 (20 for 39) in the first inning, with three doubles and a home run.
Pedroia, meanwhile, was still shaking his head over the assertion by Youkilis that he is faster than the second baseman, a claim inflated by Youkilis's inside-the-park home run Monday night.
"He was stepping on his beard as he came around third base," Pedroia said. "We work out together, pulling sleds, and I dust him carrying a 225-pound sled with me.
"But I'll keep telling him he's faster than me if he's going to keep getting five hits a game. He's on fire."
Pedroia kept alive his more modest nine-game hitting streak with a single in the fifth.
As for Francona's claim about owning the cribbage board?
"He needs to come upstairs," Youkilis said, "and get out of his office."