Two-out runs lift the Red Sox again
The Red Sox began the seventh inning last night with a whimper, a strikeout by Jason Bay and a groundout by Mike Lowell. The bases were empty. Both out lights on the scoreboard were lit up red. Fenway Park hushed. The Sox had the Chicago White Sox exactly where they wanted them.
In a 12-8 victory over the White Sox before 37,812, the Red Sox unleashed their newest, most lethal weapon: the ability to pile up runs with two outs. The Sox scored all but one of their runs last night with two outs, continuing a remarkable stretch of scoring while the opposing pitcher is one pitch away from ambling back into his dugout.
Over the past three days, 28 of the Red Sox’ 30 runs have scored with two outs. The runs can demoralize an opponent - “backbreakers,’’ Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. They also have allowed Boston to maintain a 1 1/2-game lead in the American League wild-card race over the idle Texas Rangers.
With their explosive two-out performances, the Sox have made a bad memory out of their slumping offense. Throughout their last seven games, in which they are 5-2, the Sox have averaged 9.3 runs on 11.6 hits. Francona often has insisted one hitter can transform a team, and the addition of Victor Martinez has completed the Red Sox.
“I think everyone has kind of been waiting for this,’’ Bay said. “It’s kind of been searching for that offensive identity all year. We’ve not really been consistent. We haven’t had the games like this, like we kind of envisioned early on.’’
Last night, the Red Sox saved their latest explosive two-out performance for that seventh inning. The offense had previously tried to make it an easy night. Chicago starter Jose Contreras was a willing accomplice, but Clay Buchholz would not comply. The Red Sox, who once led by five runs, entered the seventh ahead, 9-7.
And suddenly, the Red Sox struck. J.D. Drew roped a home run into the White Sox bullpen. Alex Gonzalez doubled to left-center. Jacoby Ellsbury dropped a triple into the left-field corner. Dustin Pedroia slammed a double off the Monster.
Perhaps Octavio Dotel should never have given Drew, batting eighth, a pitch he could drive over the fence. But then Gonzalez, batting ninth, already had a pair of hits. The Red Sox have eliminated any holes from their lineup.
“When Gonzie is swinging the bat like that,’’ Francona said, “it changes everything.’’
After Buchholz snapped his recent string of strong starts, the bullpen bailed him out. Led by Ramon Ramirez’s 1 2/3 innings and Jonathan Papelbon’s two-strikeout ninth, the bullpen gave up one run in 4 1/3 innings. “Huge,’’ Francona said.
The Red Sox scored their first four runs as if they believed baseball had introduced creativity as a judging category. In the second inning, Bay and Drew stood on third and first with two outs. Back in spring training, the Red Sox had practiced a play in which one runner gets caught in a rundown and the other runs home, the kind of drill that makes players broiling in the Florida heat think, “When are we ever going to use this?’’
With Gonzalez batting, Drew attempted to steal second. Bay waited for catcher A.J. Pierzynski to throw; he was bolting no matter what. Drew stopped as Pierzynski’s throw sailed into second. Bay scampered home while the White Sox infielders threw the ball around and he scored before Drew was tagged out.
“It was just a Little League play,’’ Bay said. “Run until somebody tags you. It might be the first time all year we’ve actually done it.’’
The play served as a prelude for the third inning’s hijinks. Chicago starter Contreras loaded the bases for David Ortiz with two outs. On a 3-0 pitch, Ortiz swung away and dribbled a ball down the first-base line. Contreras and first baseman Paul Konerko converged as Ortiz barreled down the line.
Contreras, despite having time to spare, muffed the ball with his glove, allowing Ortiz to scoot past and reach first while a run scored. Afterward, Ortiz still did not know what happened. “Did he miss it?’’ he asked.
Contreras never recovered. Bay walked on five pitches. Contreras bounced a breaking ball past Pierzynski, Kevin Youkilis scampering home. The Sox had tied the score at 4 on a fielder’s choice following a rundown, an error, a walk, and a wild pitch.
Lowell replaced the unconventional methods with plain force. On the eighth pitch in his at-bat, Contreras threw a 94-mile per hour fastball. Lowell blasted the ball high into the night and onto Lansdowne Street. It may have touched a NESN satellite along the journey.
The Sox added another pair of runs in the fourth, granting Buchholz a 9-4 lead. Buchholz had spent his previous three starts providing reason to believe he could become a reliable third starter behind Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. He had given up four earned runs in 19 innings, winning once and twice running into bad luck.
For now, those flashes remain just that, flashes. Last night, he reverted to the way he threw Aug. 2 in Baltimore. Then, like last night, the Red Sox offense made it a challenge to squander a lead. But Buchholz let the White Sox back in the game. Konerko crushed a three-run home run into the light tower on the Monster, ending Buchholz’s outing with two outs in the fifth.
“I still feel good,’’ Buchholz said. “No loss of confidence in any pitches.’’
Once he retreated to the dugout, the Red Sox still relaxed, like they knew they were going to score.
“It’s nice to have a feel that if they score first or if down by a few runs, that we have that feeling that we can put some on the board,’’ Francona said. “Because we went through a period there where we weren’t doing that.’’
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Jonathan Papelbon had received a save for his appearance. The story has been modified with the correction.