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May 19. 2013 2:08AM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: These Red Sox don't quit


Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara (19) celebrates with catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (39) after beating the Minnesota Twins at Target Field on Friday. (Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)

As the Red Sox and Orioles essentially traded places in the American League East a season ago, the two clubs appeared to be inverses of each other. Look no farther than the fact Baltimore finished 93-69, while Boston finished 69-93.

But there was more to the story than the final standings told. Buoyed by an all-time-best 29-9 record in one-run games, the Orioles were 54-23 in games decided by two runs or less, equating to a .701 winning percentage that's baseball's fifth-best since 1901. Meanwhile, the Red Sox went 31-44 in such contest, their .413 success rate ranking 27th among big-league teams last season.

Take those tight tilts out of the equation, and Baltimore was 39-46 in decisions with a margin of three or more, whereas Boston was 38-49. The difference between the teams was just a couple of games.
And that helps illustrate why Thursday's and Friday's wins in Tampa and Minnesota were important and encouraging as the Sox try to right things after a rough start to May.

"We don't want to be the heart-attack kids, but it's a good character check for us," Jonny Gomes told reporters after his sacrifice fly delivered Dustin Pedroia and a 3-2 triumph Friday night. "It says a lot about different ways you can win."

The character checks have come often in the first quarter of a season that began with plenty of questions about whether this club had that quality, and the Sox have passed those tests with enough frequency that it's almost safe to say they've got good character - or at least that they're not the folding failures of 2012. Just this past week they responded to a 2-9 stretch by winning three straight to steady things again, and that's something that may not have happened a year ago.

Perhaps the best thing about the latter two victories in that mini-streak, though, was the nature of them. Thursday night the Sox were down to their final strike, and trailing the Rays and closer Fernando Rodney by two runs, when Will Middlebrooks laced a bases-unloading double that gave Boston its first win this season when trailing after eight innings. Then, Friday night they scratched together the decisive tally in the 10th inning with a single, a walk, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly.

With those two triumphs, the Sox improved to 7-4 in one-run games this season, and 10-9 in games decided by one or two runs. Neither of those are make-you or break-you marks, and history suggests that most teams finish much nearer to .500 by those measures than the 2012 Orioles did. But now into the meat of the baseball season, they do at least seem to say something about who the Red Sox are.

They are a team that fights to the final out. They are a team that understands the situation. They are a team that doesn't get overwhelmed in critical moments. They are a team with a dependable bullpen. They are a team guided by a manager who can put his team in position to succeed late in games. They are a team that is tough.

And all that suggests they are a team to be reckoned with as the season continues.

"This is a smart team, in terms of guys knowing the game, how it's to be played, what situations call for," manager John Farrell said Friday. "I think guys look beyond themselves when they're asked to execute."

As a result, in spite of their recent struggles, the Sox began Saturday just a game back of the Yankees for first place in the East, with New York having climbed to the top of the division thanks in no small part to its 16-6 record in one- or two-run games. At .727, they're on a pace that would be the major leagues' best ever.

Logic suggests that will even out at some point - although seeing as it never really did for the 2012 Orioles, Boston can't really count on that.

So, if that's what the division comes down to, it's a good thing that this year's Sox at least appear far better-equipped to wage that battle.

.
A night after delivering the game-winning double, Middlebrooks was at bat with the game in the balance again Friday, and this time Farrell asked him to bunt. He hadn't laid down a sacrifice since Single-A, and because it cost the Sox an out after putting the first two men aboard in the 10th there were plenty of critics who questioned that decision.

Here's why it was the right one: In extra innings, a team is playing for a run, not the big inning. Middlebrooks is hitting .205, and strikes out in more than 28 percent of his plate appearances, and doing so there would've been an unproductive out. He also grounds into double plays on 17 percent of his chances to do so. Meanwhile, Twins pitcher is a fly-ball pitcher, so even if Stephen Drew was walked intentionally (as he was), Josh Roenicke against Gomes' decided upper-cut was a recipe for a sac fly. And that's what happened.

It wasn't a slam-dunk decision, but there was plenty of logic that made it worth Farrell forfeiting an out.



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After Daniel Bard's brutal inning against the Fisher Cats on Wednesday at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, Farrell said there was "concern" about the direction the reliever is headed, though he said the organization will continue letting him try to resolve major command issues at Double-A - instead of shutting him down, or sending him to extended spring training.

"We've got to get to the point of Daniel being very candid and honest with himself, and not be deflecting some of the things that he might be feeling," Farrell said. "Just be as bluntly honest as we can.

"This is something that you can't run from."



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Stat of the week: Through Friday, the Indians are 10-3 in one-run games, a .769 winning percentage putting them on pace to break baseball's single-season record. Terry Francona brings the Tribe to Boston on Thursday, as the Sox' long-term manager makes his return to the Fenway dugouts.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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