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Red Sox Open Up East Lead With Interleague Wins

Terry Francona congratulates and cool Josh Beckett after his shutout of the Braves.

The Red Sox took advantage of a weaker portion of their schedule by winning both series this past week against the Marlins and Braves.  The American League has been the stronger of the two leagues recently and the Red Sox continued the junior circuit’s winning ways by beating two sub-.500 National League clubs.

The Yankees scuffled this week against the major league-worst Nationals and Marlins to help the Red Sox open up a four-game cushion in the American League East.  The pitching was the engine this week as the Red Sox allowed more than five runs only once, which was Daisuke Matsuzaka’s start, and he has been disabled to open a spot for the much anticipated John Smoltz debut this week.

Red Sox vs. Marlins

The Red Sox were making the Marlins look like a minor league team in the first two games until the rains helped them steal a shortened game three.  Some controversy surrounded the contest as Mike Lowell vocalized the player’s frustrations as the ownership green-lighted the game under a dicey forecast.  The decision cost the team as the game was called in the sixth and never restarted, ultimately resulting in a Red Sox loss.

In the opener, Tim Wakefield had his knuckler working as he went six innings with four strikeouts and only one walk, while yeilding six hits and two walks to get the win.  The Red Sox never trailed in the 8-2 victory, but put the game out of reach with a six run fourth, a rally started with a David Ortiz home run.  He also went two for three with a walk, so maybe those eye drops are helping after all.  The Red Sox got 13 hits and each starter with the exception of Mike Lowell had a hit, including five who had two hits in the balanced attack.

Brad Penny beat his former team and the Red Sox celebrated their 500th consecutive sellout in the second game.  Penny allowed an unearned run in the first, the only Marlin to return to home in the game, and only allowed three hits and four walks and struck out three.  Dustin Pedroia had three hits, Rocco Baldelli had two, and Jacoby Ellsbury (home run) and Big Papi each had one hit and two walks to pace the offense to the 6-1 win.

The bullpen did not allow a run in seven innings of work over the two games, continuing their dominance as a unit.

Jon Lester got a five-inning complete game defeat in the series finale, a 2-1 rain shortened loss.  All the runs were scored on longballs as Kevin Youkilis (Red Sox only baserunner) took Ricky Nolasco deep in the first and Dan Uggla and Ronny Paulino took Lester out of the yard in the second.  Lester did not have his best stuff in the elements as he allowed eight hits through the five frames, but he did not walk a batter and did strike out four.

That was a tough way to lose a game, but the team tried to avoid having to potentially make up the game later in the season, like they had to do with the Phillies a few years ago, so they tried to squeeze it in and just could not.

Despite the loss, the Red Sox had a very good series, allowing five runs in 23 innings, including none in seven for the pen.  The offense scored 15 and all of the regulars contributed in some fashion, despite the frustrating finale.

Red Sox vs. Braves

The opener featured two Japanese countrymen facing off as Dice-K battled rookie import Kenshin Kawakami, in what will be Dice-K’s last start for a while.  The Braves opened the game by flat out hammering Dice-K, hitting the ball very hard, including Nate McLouth’s first pitch home run.  Matsuzaka was fortunate to escape the first with only two runs allowed in the inning.  For this outing, he allowed six runs in four innings on eight hits and four walks with only two K’s.  He has not been sharp all season, but had nothing on the ball in this game and perhaps the “weak shoulder” is the reason for this struggles.

Jason Bay had both Red Sox hits, including a two run home run as Kawakami overpowered the Sox and defeating them 8-2.  He flew through six innings with only 83 pitches and struck out five, against three walks.  From the it-could-have-been-worse department, the Braves 11 hits came from the top six in the order; if the bottom had been at all productive, the Braves could have really put a hurting on the pitching staff.

One of the truest measures of an ace is the ability to stop losing streaks and there is no Red Sox better at doing this than Josh Beckett.  In an almost scripted performance, Beckett outdueled Derek Lowe 3-0 in a brilliant pitcher’s duel.  Beckett went the distance and allowed only five hits, fanned seven, walked none, and threw only 94 pitches.  Neither team scored through four, but the Red Sox put single runs on the board in the next three innings and it was more than enough.  Jason Varitek and Nick Green led the way with two hits apiece.

The Red Sox blew two leads in the finale, but won a wild game 6-5 on a Nick Green walkoff home run to give Jonathan Papelbon a victory.  Wakefield went 6.2 innings and allowed four runs on nine hits and whiffed only two.  Ramon Ramirez allowed an inherited runner to score to blow the first lead and Hideki Okajima took the eighth and made it interesting, but escaped with a single run allowed to blow the second lead.

Even Papelbon had an tough outing, loading the bases with two walks and a hit before wriggling out of the jam with a 5-5 tie.  He would become the winner when Green’s home run gave the Red Sox the 6-5 win.  Papi hit his sixth home run and went 2-4 to bump his average up to .213 to help the Red Sox overcome a two-run first inning deficit as well.

Final Thoughts

The Red Sox overcame another poor Dice-K outing to win the series, largely on the back of Beckett.  As was the theme of the week and most of the season so far, the offense was very balanced.  Everyone in the lineup, whether it be a regular or a fill in, is doing their job, getting on base, moving runners over, or knocking them in.  This is exactly why Ortiz’ .213-6 HR season has not been a big deal or stopped them from becoming the best American League team so far.

With John Smoltz a ready plug in to the rotation, the Red Sox can hope that Matsuzaka is just hurt and not an overpriced five inning batting practice pitcher.  He knows he has not been doing the job of late and hopefully, John Farrell can fix his confidence as this game is more mental than most of us realize most of the time.  We saw this with David Ortiz, who might be breaking out of his slump just now.

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