Heading for home on a winning note
DETROIT - The night before, in the wake of his no-hit bid, Josh Beckett had been clear about the goal for a starting rotation that started slowly but has made strides of late. "We still owe the bullpen some innings," he said, "so we've got to get our starters to go deeper."
And in the latest turn through the rotation, from Brad Penny last Saturday in Toronto to Tim Wakefield here yesterday, four of the five Sox starters turned in outings of at least six innings. Two did so in exceptional fashion - Beckett's hitless stretch and victory Wednesday and Jon Lester's 12 strikeouts and win last Sunday - while others managed to grind out wins with help from the offense.
Wakefield, who pitched 6 2/3 innings, said he "could have gone at least two more." Instead, he was taken out for matchup reasons after 80 pitches. It proved a successful - if less efficient - way to a win, a 6-3 victory that completed a sweep of the Tigers and provided a winning road trip for the Sox. Jonathan Papelbon's ninth inning, however, again was nerve-racking, with Dustin Pedroia's diving force out helping to prevent a comeback.
"We haven't been playing very well on the road," Wakefield said. "To come away 6-4 on this road trip - it's been a long one. To win three against the first-place team in the Central is huge."
The Sox remained tied with the Yankees atop the American League East, and earned their first three-game sweep in Detroit since 1996. The Sox used an assist from Dontrelle Willis, scoring six runs on only six hits, but Wakefield's outing was crucial to the Sox' fourth straight win.
"He's been a blessing for us," manager Terry Francona said. "I think you look at his numbers during the regular season from the last couple years, he probably ranks second on our staff in a lot of categories. Wins, innings. He's a good pitcher. Maybe a little unconventional, but that's OK. It doesn't matter."
Other than a three-run second, the Tigers could get no more than one base runner in any inning against Wakefield. In fact, they were strangely consistent. In each of the third through seventh innings, Detroit got one hit, and couldn't score. It was after the last hit, a two-out double by Ryan Raburn in the seventh, that Wakefield gave way to Justin Masterson.
And in the end, because of Willis's wildness, the three runs Wakefield allowed didn't bite the Sox.
"Single, single, double, we're down three," Francona said. "He really reeled it back in and had some real quick outs. Some quicker innings. We get six, and it's just like he really did a good job. When he can get first-pitch outs, or double plays, it gave us a chance where we can match up a little bit."
Wakefield didn't walk a batter, which wasn't the case with Willis. The lefthander began the third inning by hitting Jacoby Ellsbury with a pitch, and followed with a walk to Julio Lugo, a walk to Dustin Pedroia, a walk to J.D. Drew, and a walk to Kevin Youkilis. By that point, when Willis was replaced by Zach Miner, the Sox had scored two runs without benefit of a hit.
"I don't know if I would call it an attack," Francona said. "We knew that we wanted to swing at strikes. Don't want to become impatient. Ellsbury gets clipped with [an 0-2] fastball, and it seemed from there we got a little momentum on the inning. We didn't leave the strike zone very often. It helped us. [Willis] had a tough inning, and it helped us score runs."
Jason Bay then lined a double to left field, scoring Pedroia and Drew. Youkilis came home on a ground out by Mike Lowell, and Bay scored the sixth run on a Rocco Baldelli single. Without much more offense - though the Sox loaded the bases against Joel Zumaya in the eighth with no outs and couldn't convert - the Sox needed Wakefield.
"It's important, especially after we go and score six in the top of the third. I've got to go out there and give them a shutout inning," Wakefield said. "I was able to only throw 80 pitches through 6 2/3. I was very efficient today. Hopefully, I can keep it going.
"I'm very fortunate to be on some good ends of some great offensive support. But you've got to pitch good enough, too, to win some close games. Hopefully, we can keep the momentum going and stay focused and just get outs."
Which brings it back to the starters. The Sox had suffered through an 8-8 stretch with a 4.98 ERA from May 9-26. In the eight games since, Sox starters have allowed more than three runs just once, in Wakefield's last outing, and have amassed a 3.19 ERA. Though the team still ranks near the bottom of the AL in ERA - 12th entering yesterday - that number is decreasing as the pitchers find their rhythm.
"Everybody's been pitching well," Wakefield said. "If we can maintain our composure, the starters pitch well, the bullpen pitches well, and we can score some runs, we'll be right where we need to be."
After the game, the Sox returned home, where they haven't been since Memorial Day weekend.
As Francona said, "When you put stuff in your suitcase and don't know what's clean and what's dirty, you know it's been a long trip."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.