Red Sox 11, Nationals 3

Sox capitalize on a woeful foe

Ellsbury, Bay sparkle in rout of Washington article page player in wide format.
By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / June 24, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The Red Sox and the Nationals may represent baseball's poles this season, and last night made clear that is attributable to both execution and talent. The Red Sox would have won with nothing but binary code baseball - a scoreboard of 1s and 0s. And then they bludgeoned the Nationals, because they could.

Before a record crowd and in thick summer heat, the Red Sox and Nationals played seven taut innings of baseball before the Red Sox - Jason Bay and Jacoby Ellsbury, specifically - asserted their dominance and ran away with an 11-3 victory. The Sox scored six runs in the eighth inning off the Nationals’ shield-your-eyes bullpen, rendering their precision for the bulk of the evening a lesson for baseball's worst team.

The 41,517 attending will remember Bay and Ellsbury most. They drove in six runs combined and smashed eight of the Red Sox’ season-high 17 hits. The victory sent the Sox a season-best five games up on the second-place Yankees in the American League East.

“It's nice,’’ Ellsbury said, “to have a little cushion.’’

Ellsbury merely had one of the best games of his career. He reached base all five times he stepped to the plate, two triples (one off the top of the center-field fence, one scalded into the right-center gap), two singles (one that didn’t leave the infield), and a walk. He scored one run, drove in three, and stole a base, too.

On May 31, manager Terry Francona moved Ellsbury out of the leadoff slot because, with his .332 on-base percentage, he was not getting on base enough. Ellsbury has reached base in 31 of his 69 plate appearances since, a .449 clip. He has 10 walks over that span - the same number he had during his first 221 plate appearances, all as the first batter. In the 17 games Ellsbury has played outside the leadoff slot, the Sox are 12-5.

“It made our lineup play to some of its strengths,’’ Francona said. “Jacoby has been able to be a little more aggressive on the bases. He gives protection to the guy in front of him because he’s swinging the bat so well. There’s a lot of good things.’’

Bay blasted a solo homer, smoked three singles, drove in three runs, and scored three. He turned the game from edge-of-the-seat to empty-the-seats with a bases-loaded, two-run single to left in the eighth, starting a six-run onslaught that included Ellsbury’s two-run triple.

No one would argue the talent level in either dugout is anything but disparate. But last night’s outcome came about in part because, at each pivotal moment, the Red Sox did small things that help a team win night after summer night and the Nationals did things that help a team lose night after summer night.

The Red Sox took the lead, for the third and final time, in the seventh after a rally that began with the Nationals’ league-high 65th error. Washington starter John Lannan exited after striking out J.D. Drew for the third time, leaving the bases empty and one out for former Red Sox reliever Julian Tavarez. Kevin Youkilis grounded to third base, which, when a team is 20-48, can manage to be the beginning of the end.

Ryan Zimmerman picked up the ball and fired to first, a short hop that Nick Johnson could not handle. The ball trickled away, and Youkilis stood on first base.

Bay rolled a single through the left side. Youkilis dashed to second and watched Adam Dunn lumber toward the ball. There is a difference between a fast base runner and a good base runner, and Youkilis is the dictionary example of the latter.

“You can call Youk athletic,’’ Francona said. “Put your name next to it, not mine.’’ But there was Youkilis, darting around second base and headed toward third. He slid feet first, in time by a couple steps. “Huge,’’ said Bay, who followed behind to second. The Nationals intentionally walked Mike Lowell, and Jason Varitek belted a sacrifice fly to Dunn.

It was obscured an inning later, but consider how the winning run scored: A routine play botched, an intelligent base running maneuver, a plain sacrifice fly. In baseball, the difference between the worst teams and the best teams is often reduced to small things done well.

“Stuff might not show up in the box score,’’ Ellsbury said. “But it might show up in the win column.’’

The Nationals entered the evening one game off the pace of the 1962 New York Mets for the worst record in baseball’s modern era, but also having won four of six against the Yankees and Blue Jays, the Sox’ AL East brethren. The Nationals are deeply flawed, but probably not as historically atrocious as their record indicates.

The Red Sox have reached a high-water mark, having won three games in a row, five of their last seven, and 10 of their last 13. They may well be the best team in baseball, capable of taking a club apart piece by piece or hammering them - both in a single game.

“As good as our record is, we haven’t even gotten hot yet,’’ Bay said. “We haven’t gone on one of those streaks. I don’t think we’ve really fired on all cylinders. That being said, our record is pretty good, and we’re playing pretty good baseball. It’s scary to think we could be even better.’’

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