The Red Sox have spent the last week crafting an answer to all those who, bedazzled by the Tampa Bay Rays, hastened to proclaim a new world order in the American League East.
It goes something like this: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
Not that anyone would ever get fooled again.
A week ago, the Sox left New York five games behind the Rays, who had won seven in a row.
This morning, while basking in the top-to-bottom pleasure of administering a 12-1 beating to the Baltimore Orioles last night before 37,539 in Fenway Park, the Sox are within a half-game of reclaiming the lead in the AL East, with one game left before the division races take a respite for the All-Star break.
The Rays have lost six in a row on the road, and have looked ugly doing so, getting outscored, 40-11, though they made a late run at Cleveland before succumbing last night, 8-4.
"If I said I didn't pay attention, that would be wrong because that's silly, you need to pay attention," Sox manager Terry Francona said after Tim Wakefield limited the Orioles to two hits and a run in seven innings, his ninth straight quality start. "I think we view it more that we're in a battle with ourselves. I'm not putting down any team out there. It's just until you get to the end of September and the schedule says you need one game to win, we need to play as well as we can play.
"When we do that, and if we do it well enough, those other things do take care of themselves."
The Sox, with Kevin Youkilis hitting his first career grand slam during a seven-run third inning in which they sent a dozen men to the plate, have capitalized on the creature comforts of home, winning for the fourth time in five games since returning to Fenway.
Youkilis, who also had a sacrifice fly in the fourth and a run-scoring single in the eighth, finished with a career-high six RBIs, most by a Sox player since J.D. Drew drove in seven June 8, 2007 in Arizona.
"Our offense, Youkilis with six RBIs, and that big third inning, just made my job a lot easier - I just pitched on the right day today," said Wakefield, who had won just one of his previous five starts, despite giving up no more than three runs in any of them.
Drew and Manny Ramírez hit back-to-back home runs in the first inning, and 10 Sox players collected at least one hit. The only absentee from the hit list was the new kid, Jed Lowrie, summoned from Pawtucket to take the place of shortstop Julio Lugo, who will be out 4-6 weeks with a torn left quadriceps muscle.
Boston's 15-hit gusher came the same day Francona laid out a scenario in which slugger David Ortiz could return by the time the Yankees visit July 25.
It was all too much for Orioles manager Dave Trembley, who reached his breaking point when Doug Eddings, the umpire whose "out" call on Lugo the night before at first base will rank as one of the all-time whoppers, called out Kevin Millar on a pitch that was at shoelace level to end the seventh inning.
When Trembley did a toe touch to demonstrate his view of the pitch, he was ejected.
"When you're calling strike three on a guy on [a pitch] that's at his shoe tops, I think you should be a little better than that," Trembley said after Baltimore's most one-sided loss this season. "I could see doing that to a guy who's a rookie or maybe even do that with no strikes or one strike, but for me that's really disrespecting the game at that particular point in time."
The Rays, like the Sox, have been world-beaters at home (Tampa Bay, 36-14, Sox, 35-11), which makes the following piece of information of more than passing interest: After Aug. 7, the Rays play just 19 games at home, and finish the season with eight on the road.
The Sox, meanwhile, play 25 games at home after Aug. 7, including their last seven.
Advantage, Yawkey Way.
It's a benefit not wasted on Wakefield. Of his six wins this season, five have come at home, where he is 5-2 with a 3.04 ERA (he is 1-4 with a 4.04 ERA on the road). Last night, the run allowed by Wakefield came on a home run by Ramon Hernandez in the third inning. He also walked just one.
But the way he's pitching, Francona could hand Wakefield the ball in Kyrgyzstan (that's a country, not an eye chart) and he'd get a good outing.
"I think that's actually the best I've ever seen Wake pitch," Francona said. "He left a pitch that ran back a little bit on Ramon that he hit out, but the ball was almost attacking Cashie in the zone. He worked quick, we got runs, then Youks hits the grand slam and spreads it out.
"He went out there and did exactly what we wanted him to do."