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Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Red Sox are opportunists
Boston center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (2) steals second base ahead of the tag by Oakland Athletics short stop Andy Parrino (12) during the fifth inning of Wednesday's game. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)
Why, then, was it the Sox who escaped a twilight rubber match as 6-5 winners?
Because they were better in the moments that opportunity presented itself. Just as they've been all year.
There have been many contributing factors in what is now a 14-7 start, and none of those should be overlooked or understated, but if there is a single facet of the game in which the Sox have so far separated themselves from the competition, it's been their ability to deliver a hit or make a pitch when it's mattered. Specifically, when there are runners in scoring position.
"This team's great," said shortstop Stephen Drew. "The chemistry's here, and how you win games is pitching, defense and timely hitting."
Wednesday those hits came from Mike Napoli, who doubled home David Ortiz from second base, then from Drew, whose tripled scored Napoli and Will Middlebrooks to tie the game at three in the fourth. In the next frame they came from Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz and Daniel Nava, in succession, to open up a 6-3 lead.
By the end of the day they were 6-for-13 when hitting with men at second and/or third, and that bumped their average on the season all the way up to .297. That's almost 50 points higher than the American League's aggregate average through Tuesday, which was .248.
And even more impressive has been the work of Boston's pitchers in those predicaments. Entering Wednesday, AL pitchers were allowing opponents to hit .252 against them with runners in scoring position - though after limiting the A's to three hits in nine at-bats on Wednesday, enemy batters were only 30 for 154 against Sox hurlers. That's a .195 average. That's the best mark in the American League.
Individually, Shane Victorino (9-for-16) is hitting .563 with runners in scoring position, while Napoli's .379 average (11-for-29) helps explain his team-leading 26 runs batted in. On the mound, hitters are just 2-for-23 against today's starter, Clay Buchholz, and after Wednesday they're 4-for-23 against Jon Lester and 1-for-12 against Junichi Tazawa.
Some statisticians would suggest that just because it's happened so far doesn't mean it will continue, arguing that batting or pitching with men on base is merely circumstantial, and over time the numbers will come back to a mean determined according to a player's ability.
But the Red Sox entered Wednesday feeling the game was particularly important after getting shellacked in a most sloppy fashion a night earlier. They felt they needed a win - and when opportunity arose, they got the hits and the pitches that they needed. Just as they have for almost a month now.
"After (Tuesday) night's game, when things got away from us, to put that behind us and come out and execute today like we did," manager John Farrell said, "it's a very good series win."
Lester's Wednesday outing was his worst of the season, the lefty getting lifted with two outs in the sixth inning after a walk and a single put the tying runs on base. Tazawa bailed him out by leaving them there, so the starter was charged with only three runs, though Lester still yielded six hits and six walks - and maybe more disconcerting was his reaction to a number of close pitches.
For example, Lester walked off the mound believing he'd struck out Nate Freiman to end the sixth, kicked his leg chest high in frustration, then failed to regain focus and wound up walking the A's designated hitter.
On several other occasions he glared toward the home plate umpire, or muttered to himself, and that signaled something of a regression for Lester, whose propensity for letting the umpires rattle him was a factor in 2012 being the worst season of his career.
"We had some reminders in between innings," Farrell said. "He made some good pitchers' pitches, and (the strike zone) wasn't very liberal at the bottom of it. You've got to continue to try to block that out and execute, and I think for the most part he did just that."
After Steven Wright was left mopping things up in Tuesday night's 13-0 throttling, and 82 pitches rendered him useless as a reliever for a few days, the Red Sox optioned the knuckleballer to Triple-A and recalled Daniel Bard to replace him on the roster.
Bard started the year at Porland, where he struggled early, but he went unscored upon in his last five appearances, and more importantly he repeated his delivery often enough to warrant a promotion. Farrell says he's here to "perform and be a regular" in the bullpen - though with Craig Breslow and Franklin Morales both nearing returns, Bard may not be in Boston long no matter how that performance goes.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.