TORONTO - It wasn't the first time this season the Red Sox had a day off before beginning a series in Toronto. It wasn't the first time Paul Byrd was pitching the series opener. That was why, on Thursday, Byrd and catcher Jason Varitek had their routine down.
"Twice he has brought back to the hotel a bunch of his gear, and walked through the lobby in Boston Red Sox shorts and shirt and socks and turf shoes, and he has walked through the city with me, down the street, and played catch in a park," Byrd said of Varitek. "That our starting catcher is ready to go with his catcher's mitt, that's just the sign of how much he cares.
"It doesn't get any more grunge work than that."
To keep his breaking ball sharp, Byrd makes sure to throw the day before he starts, though he doesn't necessarily need Varitek. "I will throw against a wall," Byrd said.
Yet it doesn't hurt to know his catcher is on his side, willing to help in any way.
It showed last night. Though Byrd didn't dominate, he kept the Blue Jays in check. Enough so that the Sox could come back from a two-run deficit against 18-game winner A.J. Burnett, winning, 4-3, in front of 34,982 at Rogers Centre.
Not that Varitek was taking much credit. Not for Byrd, not for a bullpen that didn't allow a run, not even for the fielder's choice that pushed the Sox in front for good, and a step closer to clinching a postseason berth.
"You start spring training, your big thing is to get to the playoffs," Sean Casey said. "Any time you get to the playoffs, it's not easy. We cherish the fact that we're close to getting in. When we do, we'll celebrate and be fired up for that."
The Sox had dropped their last two games to the Rays, falling two games back in the American League East. And they were set to meet Burnett and the equally tough Roy Halladay. But with last night's win, their magic number is 2, and the postseason is within their grasp today, if they beat the Blue Jays, and the Twins and Yankees lose.
Byrd allowed two runs in the second inning on consecutive doubles by Scott Rolen, Gregg Zaun, and Travis Snider. The Sox struck back in the fifth. Varitek led off with a double and scored on Kevin Youkilis's single, and Dustin Pedroia (fielder's choice) and Youkilis cameon a line double by Casey. Casey entered the game 14 for 26 (.538) with three RBIs off Burnett, part of the reason he got the start.
"He has above-average stuff on all his pitches," Casey said. "He's one of those guys, if you can get him in trouble, you've got to take advantage of it. Because if you don't, he has the stuff to just shut the door."
Casey said he tried to "hunt a fastball" on a 2-and-0 count, and got it, driving in two big runs. But Byrd surrendered the lead in the bottom of the inning, Marco Scutaro's double bringing in Joe Inglett (single).
"I was pretty frustrated with that, but the team eased my pain later and scored a run," said Byrd, who changed his windup and approach a bit against a team he's seen five times in his last eight starts. "So, it makes for better sleep for me."
After a one-out infield single by Jason Bay, the Sox got consecutive walks to load the bases in the eighth. Then Varitek's grounder to shortstop was hit "nice and soft," the catcher said, the fielder's choice bringing home Bay with the go-ahead run.
"It was pretty, I think," manager Terry Francona said. "It did enough."
All that was left was a bit of adventure in the ninth inning, with Jonathan Papelbon sprawled out on the infield turf trying to corral a ball hit by Adam Lind. He couldn't, at least in time for the out, compounding the problem with an errant throw, Lind taking second with no outs. But Papelbon got the next three batters, and the Jays were done.
"I was nervous," Francona said. "That was fun. That was a fun game to be a part of - a lot funner when you win."
And the Sox did, one day after a meeting of the minds in a park.
For his part, Varitek said, "I've seen year after year guys miss an offday, don't play catch, have no feel on the baseball." So he set out with Byrd to make sure that wouldn't happen this time.
"There's a reason there's a 'C' on his jersey," Byrd said.
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.