HOUSTON - Some things looked oddly familiar, even deep in the heart of Texas.
The hand-operated left-field scoreboard, for one, and the Citgo sign suspended over the left-field wall, both inspired by their Boston counterparts. You could imagine Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramírez wondering if they ever left home during a 6-1 win over the Astros last night in their last regularly scheduled interleague series of 2008.
Cecil Cooper, the first baseman on the '75 World Series team, sitting in the opposite dugout, managing the Astros. Mark Loretta, whose walkoff home run on Patriots Day in 2006 will be an enduring memory, smiling and chatting with old friends, wearing a 'Stros star on his cap.
Then there were the things you might only see here. The Hare Krishnas in cowboy hats, entertaining the lunch crowd on Main Street. The Doggie Dive in a swimming pool outside the ballpark, a mutt named Kiki launched off a springboard over 22 feet before making a triumphant splashdown in front of dozens of onlookers. The "Eat Mor Fowl" signs hanging from the foul poles, with free chicken sandwiches for all if an Astro clanks a ball off the poles.
The locomotive chugging 800 feet along the glass wall above the decorative arches evocative of old Union Station, and the retractable roof that remained closed last night because it was too hot outside. Eighty-four degrees or lower, and the sky comes into play. Anything higher - and last night it was 89 at the 7:05 first pitch - and the roof closes and the AC is turned on.
Familiar, bizarre, the Sox looked as comfortable here as the pair of new cowboy boots perched in front of the locker of Josh Beckett, who was a high school phenom growing up in nearby Springs and will be pitching in front of the home folks tomorrow afternoon.
J.D. Drew broke his mini-slump with a three-run home run, the torrid Dustin Pedroia had another three-hit game and Kevin Youkilis had the first four-hit game of his career, Daisuke Matsuzaka (9-1) struck out the side in the first of five scoreless innings, and the bullpen did the rest before a sellout gathering of 42,327 in Minute Maid Park.
The victory, which served as a successful launch to this three-city, 10-game trip, kept the Sox a half-game ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays, who will provide the opposition on the next stop of a tour that ends on Fourth of July weekend in New York with a four-game set against the Yankees.
Drew spent much of June doing a passable impression of Roy Hobbs, hitting home runs at an unprecedented pace. But the end of the team's homestand was more out of the Thomas Hobbes catalogue - he's the English philosopher who described life as "nasty, brutish, and short."
Drew finished the homestand hitless in his last 13 at-bats, sat out the finale against Arizona's Randy Johnson, and when he whiffed in the first inning last night against Runelvys Hernandez, it appeared the laws of gravity had caught up with him.
Not so fast. After Coco Crisp, who begins a five-game suspension tonight, walked and was doubled to third by Pedroia, Drew drove a 2-and-0 fastball from Hernandez, the former Royals discard and Sox farmhand, over the right-field fence for his 15th home run, a major league-leading 11th this month. Drew has as many home runs in 81 at-bats in June as he had in 466 at-bats in the '07 regular season.
"It's been a nice month," said the understated Drew, who also leads the majors with 26 RBIs this month. "Now I just have to try and transition that to the rest of the season. There are games you're going to feel really good but you're still going to have your hiccup here and there."
The two days off, he said, were "huge."
"I was hangin' a little bit," he said. "Tito [Francona] kind of knew that. A night off against Randy Johnson is not a bad night to take off. Back-to-back days, I was able to regroup a little."
Former Astro Julio Lugo singled in the seventh and scored on Pedroia's third hit, a ground ball single up the middle to give the Sox a 4-0 lead. Pedroia also walked and scored ahead of Mike Lowell's two-run single in the ninth.
In his last 16 games, the Sox second baseman, whose batting average had dropped to .263, is batting at a .418 clip (25 for 63), raising his overall average 32 percentage points to .295. He has had nine multihit games in that span, four in the last five.
"I walked up to him and told him, 'Enough is enough, you've got to stop hitting balls right at people,' " Drew said, describing an exchange he'd had with Pedroia when the second baseman was scuffling. "Now he's getting like, 17 hits a game.
"That's leadership right there."
Matsuzaka, coming off the shortest start of his Sox career (three batters into the second inning last Saturday against the Cardinals), had little trouble with the Astros until the fifth, when the 'Stros loaded the bases on two walks and a bloop single by Humberto Quintero. Matsuzaka escaped by inducing David Newhan to pop out to Lugo at short, but having thrown 31 pitches in the inning (87 overall), Francona turned to his bullpen.
"He felt good," Francona said of Matsuzaka, who allowed just two singles and walked three. "But we just want a progression where he gets stronger. But I thought he looked great."
Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen each set down the side in the next two innings, before the one red flag of the night appeared: Hideki Okajima had another rough outing, giving up a home run to pinch hitter Reggie Abercrombie and a single to Miguel Tejada in the eighth before Francona called on Jonathan Papelbon. "Just didn't finish off a splitter," Francona said of Okajima.
Papelbon whiffed cleanup man Lance Berkman on a nasty splitter to end the threat, Lowell widened the lead with his hit in the ninth, and Papelbon finished off his 24th save.