Messages are loud, clear
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — What do you dream about when you embark on a nine-game trip against your top American League East rivals?
First, you dream about nine wins. Short of that, 8-1 is a good alternative. And that’s exactly what the Red Sox completed last night, matching the franchise’s best nine-game trip accomplished in 1977.
Oh what messages the Sox sent their rivals over the past 10 days.
In no particular order:
1. We’re back.
2. We’re good.
3. We’re ready to kick anyone’s behind.
4. Try stopping us.
5. We may be the best team in baseball.
And with those messages comes the reality that the Yankees are still winning, the Rays are very pesky, the Jays will make your life miserable if you let them, and there are no guarantees in baseball.
The Sox return home for interleague series vs. the Brewers and Padres. Milwaukee just dropped three of four to the Cubs and San Diego will bring its Adrian Gonzalez-less team to Boston where we’ll see Anthony Rizzo, who may have become Boston’s future first baseman had Theo Epstein not pulled off the Gonzalez deal.
The one thing that could derail the Sox is injuries. Jed Lowrie went down last night again with left shoulder pain and could land on the disabled list. No worries since they have veteran Marco Scutaro and could recall utility guy Drew Sutton.
Another worry is Clay Buchholz’s back. The righthander was forced out of last night’s game after five innings because of tightness. The Sox are close to bringing up lefthander Andrew Miller, so this could be an opportunity to give Buchholz a couple of weeks off.
Buchholz made it very clear last night he does not want to go on the disabled list, but the Sox have options.
The Sox may also lose closer Jonathan Papelbon, whose appeal of a three-game suspension may be heard soon and the punishment lessened. Either way, Papelbon may have to miss a couple of games.
The only pitcher they could not solve on the trip was Rays righthander James Shields, who pitched a five-hit shutout Tuesday. Otherwise, they beat up the Blue Jays and swept the Yankees. The Red Sox have become a very good road team — 22-14 — best in the majors despite an 0-7 start away from Fenway Park.
They’ve hit a major league-high 46 road homers, including Gonzalez’s 14th in the ninth inning of last night’s 4-2 win.
Lefthanders, once a problem for the Boston lineup, are no longer feared. The Sox have won 11 straight against lefthanded starters since May 7.
The Sox outscored their opponents, 67-25, during the trip.
Their recent nine-game winning streak, in which they hit .329, came to an end vs. Shields. But Sox pitchers held the Rays to a .155 average and the top four batters in the Rays order went 2 for 41 with no RBIs.
“It was a great road trip,’’ Dustin Pedroia said. “We had a little bit of everything from great pitching to our offense coming alive to playing good defense. I think we did a good job and now we’ve got to get home and keep this up there.’’
Gonzalez, who went 2 for 3 last night, was 13 for 29 with 11 RBIs on the trip and extended his on-base streak to 16 games. He leads the majors with 23 doubles and is second with a .347 average.
“It was a great road trip,’’ said Gonzalez. “We started in second place and we ended in first place.’’
“This team doesn’t have to score 15 runs every night or throw one-hitters to win games,’’ Kevin Youkilis said. “If we keep doing the little things out there, we’re going to win a lot of games. For me that was the most impressive thing, that we did little things that added up to wins.’’
Little things like getting David Price’s pitch count to 33 after the first inning en route to a 1-0 lead. Little things like Darnell McDonald filling in for Jacoby Ellsbury and driving in a big run in the second inning and also making a nice catch in the outfield. Little things like Daniel Bard’s 1 1/3 scoreless innings leading to Jonathan Papelbon’s 13th save.
The road was kind to Ellsbury (15 for 37) and Ortiz (8 for 33, 4 HRs, 14 RBIs). Pedroia, who had been slumping, also broke out (12 for 31, eight RBIs). Youkilis (7 for 31, 10 RBIs) had a game-winning homer in Josh Beckett’s masterpiece 3-0 win Wednesday.
Having mastered the AL East, they will now face interleague foes over the next 15 games. The Sox have gone 97-50 in interleague games since 2003, the best record in the majors over that time.
One of the troublesome aspects of interleague play — a nine-game trip to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Houston — will be the absence of the DH. That means one of Boston’s hottest hitters, Ortiz, will have to sit out a majority of the time. Ortiz has not been working out at first base and it’s unlikely the Sox would rest Gonzalez.
These are the best of times for the Sox. Almost perfect.
“It’s going to be a fun trip home,’’ Ortiz said. “We’re having a lot of fun here now.’’