ARLINGTON, Texas - There was little outward jubilation after yesterday's game, just the rush to pack bags and get on a plane back to Boston. But there was a sense, with the win over the Rangers and the loss by the Rays, that the Red Sox were ready. Ready to return to Fenway Park to start knocking additional games off their deficit to Tampa Bay. Ready to meet a team that hasn't exactly been playing its best baseball of late.
There had been that jubilation the day before, when the clubhouse erupted at the sight of Gregg Zaun's home run that cost the Rays the game against Toronto. It was a lighthearted moment, a moment of fun on an often businesslike team, a moment that seemed as if it might propel the Sox to a win that night. But the Sox had not capitalized on that loss. It wouldn't happen like that again.
"We're playing great baseball, that's the fun part of it," Alex Cora said. "It's not that we struggle, but I think after that win in Toronto [Aug. 24, in 11 innings], I think we kind of found ourselves. Obviously we're in September, obviously it seems like we're playing with more emotion, we're showing it. It's fun, man, especially when you win. That's the fun part of it.
"You watch games, and you know where everybody's at. Whoever says they don't do that, you just saw it. We're lying."
The Rays had already been swept by Toronto, for their fifth loss in six games, when the Red Sox finished off Texas yesterday at Rangers Ballpark at Arlington. Before 28,644 partisan fans that left Paul Byrd wondering if he should tip his cap to the visiting crowd, the Sox closed to 1 1/2 games back in the American League East, winning it, 7-2.
"We played two good games, one kind of a clunker," manager Terry Francona said about the series. "Now we get to go home and play, hopefully, some of the most exciting baseball of the year. We've played ourselves into a position where these games are really important. It's exciting."
Behind a three-hit effort from Byrd over 6 2/3 innings, despite an uncharacteristic three walks, and David Ortiz's first home run since Aug. 14, the Sox cruised over the Rangers. And, with that, the real fun begins.
"I'm fired up," Byrd said. "It's going to be like a playoff atmosphere, if it wasn't already. It's going to be even more like a playoff game. I'm looking forward to that."
He isn't alone. Not only will the Sox set the major league record for consecutive sellouts tonight, but they'll get to face off against an opponent that simply hasn't gone away. There is an advantage for the Sox, though. The teams will be playing at Fenway Park. Through four series this season against the Rays, each team has won the six games played in their own ballpark.
Advantage, Sox (at least for these next three).
"We really do need to win a game or two in Boston; I've said that from the very beginning," manager Joe Maddon told the St. Petersburg Times yesterday. "It's just the mental hurdle you have to overcome by winning in that form of enemy territory."
Or, as reliever Dan Wheeler said, "We have to go there and win, and that's part of it. If we're going to win in October, this is where it begins."
But there are certainly reasons the Sox have been able to take the first six games in Boston. Like a 2.33 ERA for the Sox, and a 7.88 ERA for the Rays in Fenway. Or a .330 batting average for the Sox; .229 for the Rays. It's everything, really, from hits to walks to on-base percentage to slugging percentage.
That's not a good proposition for the Rays, especially coming off a stretch in which they have lost four games off their AL East lead in just one week. On the morning of Sept. 1, the lead was at 5 1/2 games. Now, it's 1 1/2.
"It doesn't help, it doesn't give you that good vote of confidence," the Rays' Cliff Floyd said yesterday.
"Nobody feels good about this, but we knew at some point adversity was going to hit us in the head real hard. How we come out of this is going to tell us what we did right and what we did wrong."
Against the Rangers yesterday, the Sox did little wrong. They started the scoring in the second when Cora tripled in Jason Varitek, and Coco Crisp singled in Cora. They added two runs in both the fifth and sixth, adding a final run in the seventh on a solo homer by Jason Bay. Add in the pitching by Byrd, and it was a good - if quite hot - day at the ballpark.
Byrd, who pitched his best game as a Red Sox, brought his record (with Cleveland and Boston) to 8-1 with a 2.61 ERA over his last nine starts. Not bad for a post-trading deadline pickup. And Byrd brings something else to this team in its playoff chase - experience. That's always been the knock on the Rays, despite a small veteran presence. It has never been a problem for the Sox.
"I think experience means something," Byrd said. "Having veterans means something, having people that have been there and done it before. It's a factor. I do think it's important. The way these guys play is phenomenal.
"You could have an attitude in this clubhouse saying, 'We did it last year,' [where] there could be a relaxed atmosphere. There is none of that. These guys are hungry. You would think they'd never won it all."
They have, of course. And beginning tonight with the first game of the series, the Red Sox are going to try to win it again. First, though, they have to secure a spot in the postseason, and taking over the lead in the East would be a good way to start.
"We're just going to go there and try to win the series," Cora said. "Finally we're not dependent on somebody else to get us a chance to cut the lead. It's right in front of us. We win the series, and we move on."