Upon the fabledleftfield wall at Boston's Fenway Park is a tote board that daily measures NewEngland's collective apprehension. The board is regarded everywhere else as anenormous version of the American League East standings, at the top of which theRed Sox have stood each day since April 18. However, given the pathology ofrooting for the Sox, the tally is as much a large-type reminder of how muchBoston has to lose as how much it has gained.
With an achy rightknee and an equally balky left shoulder, Red Sox designated hitter David Ortizpointed to the big board last Friday morning before the start of a four-gameseries with the Los Angeles Angels and, without specifically mentioning TheyWho Must Not Be Named, said, "Those suckers are smokin' hot, and they'recoming after us." Ortiz was speaking, of course, of the second-place NewYork Yankees. "They don't want the wild card. They want us. That's why Ihave to be in the lineup every day."
On May 29 the bigboard showed Boston up by 14 1/2 games on New York, thereby casting Boston in arole as awkward to the Sox as Hamlet might be to Pauly Shore: prohibitivefront-runner. Sure enough, with New York playing .711 ball since the All-Starbreak (27-11) and the lead sliced to four games with 38 to play at week's end,the Sox face a historic finish no matter what happens. Either they suffer thesecond-biggest collapse in baseball history (the 1914 New York Giants blew a15-game lead on the Boston Braves) and thus eclipse the ignominy of the 1978Sox, who squandered a 14-game lead over New York, or they win their firstdivision title since 1995 and their first in a full season since 1990."First place," says Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, "would besignificant to our fans and our organization. Yes, because of how we've playedthis year, we prefer to get in the front door as opposed to the backdoor."
Only in Bostoncould the best record (74-50) in baseball at week's end invoke anxiety. Thoughthe Sox did win the 2004 World Series as a wild-card entrant, they have heldfirst place on May¬†30 or later in each of the past eight seasons and lostthe division every time to the Yankees--including 2005, when the Sox Heimlichedwhat was a five-game lead on Aug.¬†13. "This team is more balanced andhas much better depth than that one," counters general manager TheoEpstein.
Against theAngels, the club with the majors' second-best record, Boston played as if thisyear's lead had staying power. Though the Sox split the four games, lastSaturday night's was one of those clip-and-save victories that make forchampionship seasons. Boston had lost painfully the previous night, 7-5 in thelatter half of a day-night doubleheader, thanks to the third blown lead inseven appearances by Eric Gagné since his acquisition from the Texas Rangersjust before the July¬†31 trading deadline.
Rather thanturning to Gagné and his poorly located 92-mph fastballs (he'd given up 14earned runs and 25 base runners over his past 10 innings), the Sox might havebeen better served by calling on the fan who chucked a half-full water bottleat Gagné from the field-level stands down the leftfield line after therighthanded reliever gave up three runs in the ninth. The bottle bounced overthe mound in front of a stunned Gagné. (The fan was tackled by a security guardand arrested.) Gagné was booed off the mound and refused to face reportersafter the game or the next day.
Gagné's teammates,however, seemed less troubled by the loss. Backup first baseman Eric Hinske,for instance, figured Saturday was a good day to ask the clubhouse barber for aMohawk haircut. Centerfielder Coco Crisp showed up wearing a green trucker'shat, lime-green T-shirt, green belt and white sneakers with green plaidaccents. "Whoever wears green today, good luck will be bestowed uponhim," Crisp explained.
And where, someonewondered, had he heard such a thing?
"Mypsychic," he replied earnestly. "Man, look at me. I should be battingfourth."
Even when the Soxfell behind 5-0 against Jered Weaver in the fifth inning--and knowing New Yorkhad won again that afternoon against the Detroit Tigers--they played it cool.In the bottom of the fifth the first six batters scored, the last four on amammoth grand slam by Ortiz. Boston went on to a 10-5 win, matching theirbiggest comeback of the season. (The karmic Crisp, batting eighth, provided adouble in the rally and ran down eight fly balls.)
The slamreaffirmed Ortiz's importance as the touchstone of Red Sox Nation. Sincearriving in Boston in 2003, Ortiz has finished fifth, fourth, second and thirdin AL MVP voting, largely on his power--he averaged 43 homers in thoseseasons--and knack for clutch hits. Those calling cards, however, have beenabsent for much of this season. Ortiz entered the weekend series with only 19home runs and just one game-tying or go-ahead RBI after the sixth inning--andthat was back on April 25.
"No onechallenges me," Ortiz says in explanation. "I have never seen anythinglike this my whole career. It's the David Ortiz treatment. Pitchers tell me,'We're not going to pitch to you and Manny [Ramirez].' So compared to what Iget, the few pitches I do see, I think I've had a pretty good season."
Last week Ortizneeded a painkilling injection for a sore left shoulder. "When I swing andmiss," he says, "it really hurts. It makes me feel like I don't want toswing again." He also has been troubled most of the season by a tornmeniscus in his right knee, which often prevents him from hitting from theusual crouched stance that generates much of his power. Despite these maladies,Ortiz still ranked first in the AL with a .427 on-base percentage and 10th witha .316 batting average, both of which would be career highs over a fullseason.
Big hits fromOrtiz have become as much a civic fixture in Boston as Faneuil Hall, swan boatsand even Fenway itself, so his weekend performance brought reassurance to RedSox Nation. In addition to Saturday's grand slam, in the first inning ofFriday's series opener, an 8-4 Boston victory, Ortiz ripped a home run with arunner at second--his first Fenway homer ever with first base open and at leastone runner on. And before Gagné faltered in the nightcap, Ortiz whacked agame-tying, two-run double in the eighth off Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez.For the series Ortiz knocked in eight runs. "That grand slam wasn't justthe hardest ball he's hit this year," said Boston hitting coach DaveMagadan of the estimated 450-foot blast. "That was the longest ball I'veever seen hit here, including batting practice. And you saw how excited we allgot from that. We look to him, but it's not just us. The fans, the media,everybody feeds off him and his big hits."
Says Epstein,"The foundation of this team remains pretty much the same: Get people onbase in front of David and Manny so they can get pitches to hit."
Epstein, however,has tweaked the cast around his two sluggers with an emphasis on pitching anddefense. "Our run prevention has been even better than we expected," hesays.
Boston is on paceto allow the fewest runs in the league for only the third time since 1921.Through Sunday, Japanese free-agent rookie pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka (13-9,3.79) and Hideki Okajima (3-1, 1.21) led the starters and relievers,respectively, in innings pitched. (Should Okajima maintain his ERA untilseason's end, it would be the eighth lowest in AL history among pitchers withat least 60¬†innings and the best for a nonclosing reliever.)Twenty-three-year-old Clay Buchholz, drafted with one of the two compensatorypicks Boston received when ace Pedro Martinez skipped to the New York Metsafter the '04 season, contributed a win last Friday with six decent innings inhis big league debut and is expected to fortify the bullpen in September. Andfellow rookie Dustin Pedroia, 24, who looks smaller but performs larger thanhis listed 5'9", has played a steady second base while hitting .324, whichwould be the highest batting average in history for a rookie second baseman,eclipsing the .317 mark by Jim Viox of Pittsburgh in 1913.
Since taking overas G.M. in 2003, Epstein has introduced an emphasis on advanced statisticalanalysis; for instance, he believes so strongly in how minor league trackrecords project to big league performance that he expects that within abatter's first two years in the majors he will lose 10% off his OBP but add 20%to his slugging percentage. Epstein also has placed a premium on findingstrong-willed players for the demanding Boston market. His drafts have producedfiery All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon (2003), Pedroia (2004), Buchholz andoutfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, the first Native American of Navajo descent to makethe majors (2005), as well as pitcher Justin Masterson (2006), a ground-ballspecialist who may join Buchholz as a bullpen reinforcement in September.
To prep Buchholzfor the spotlight in Boston, the Red Sox rearranged his pitching schedule sothat he started against Roger Clemens in a nationally televised minor leaguegame on May 23. In six innings Buchholz allowed two runs while striking outeight and walking none.
"We have tolook for the right kind of guy," Epstein says, "one with a lack offear, a high degree of self-confidence, guys who are motivated by winning andplaying the game the right way, not the peripheral things that go withindividual attention. And Dustin Pedroia is such a perfect example of whatwe're looking for, you could put him on the cover of our player-developmentmanual. Here's a guy who gave up his [college] scholarship so that someone elsecould play."
In 2002 Pedroia,whose parents own several tire shops outside Sacramento, had finished hisfreshman season while on a full ride at Arizona State when he heard the programhad no scholarships available for a top junior college pitcher, Ben Thurman. SoPedroia volunteered to give his scholarship money to Thurman.
"I did itbecause I thought he could help us get to the World Series," Pedroia says."I told my parents just after I told the coaches. I knew they had put somemoney away before I got my scholarship. We lost in the super regionals, but itwas definitely worth it."
Boston tookPedroia with its first pick, a second-round selection, in 2004 and sent him toClass A Augusta. "The manager [Ron Johnson] took one look at him and calledup and said, 'You sent me the wrong guy,' '' Epstein says. "He reallythought it was a mistake. Five hours later, after he went 3 for 4 and hit aball off the wall, he called back and said, 'We love the guy.' "
Says Ortiz ofPedroia, "Everybody loves him around here. And his defense? Incredible. Itell him it's because he's so low to the ground. A ground ball can go under hisglove and it's still going to hit him in the cup."
Pedroia may behelping to give Boston a new, youthful look, but as Hinske said afterSaturday's win, "We all know that when David gets hot, he can carry us forweeks, right into the postseason. We can ride his shoulders all theway."
Even with sixgames remaining against New York, the Red Sox have the easiest remainingschedule in the league, as measured by opponents' records. (Also, Boston is36-22 against its last seven opponents.) The Red Sox know that Ortiz canminimize New England's ever-present apprehension if he hits as he did againstthe Angels.
When Ortizreturned to the dugout after his clutch double on Friday night, pitcher CurtSchilling said to him, "It's time for you to start carrying us a littlebit."
"And,"Schilling said a day later, "he had the swagger about him that said, O.K.,I want to. And that's nice."
"Those suckers are smokin' hot," says Ortiz ofthe second-place Yankees. "They don't want the wild card. THEY WANTUS."
Will the Red Sox reclaim the top spot in John Donovan'sweekly Power Rankings?
ONLY AT SI.COM
An aching Ortiz was a savior against the Angels, while Gagné, who blew threegames in eight days, was anything but.
Unheralded Okajima was on a course to finish with the lowest ERA ever in the ALby a nonclosing reliever.
JOHN BIEVER; DAMIAN STROHMEYER; JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
GOOD CATCHES Pedroia (top), Papelbon (left) and Buchholz are products of drafts built around pitching and defense.