On Thursday night in Boston, the intrigue of a matchup between two of the five highest-scoring offenses in baseball took a backseat to the main narrative entering the weekend: Terry Francona's return to Fenway Park as an opposing manager.
It would have been hard to imagine a better re-emergence as an acting manager than he experienced on Thursday night.
Not only did the Red Sox salute his historic Boston tenure with a video tribute displayed to the fans at Fenway Park, but Tito's current team, the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians, bruised and battered Red Sox pitching all night, riding a relentless offensive attack to a 12-3 victory.
While the tribute was fitting, it would have been only a small consolation prize had the Indians lost the game. At this point, two years since the public and embarrassing falling-out between Francona, team and ownership, the hatchet seems to have been buried in Boston.
Despite Francona's critical stance toward Red Sox ownership in his recently released book, the differences between Francona in the media and Francona on the bench are stark. And now that he's back between the white lines, it was the proper time to honor him for his World Series titles, playoff appearances and representing the Red Sox better than any manager in their history.
But as satisfying as that must have been for Francona, that his lineup banged out 16 hits must have looked even sweeter.
Make no mistake: Cleveland's offense isn't a fluke.
Led by a group of patient, powerful hitters up and down the lineup, the Indians enter the weekend first in MLB in OPS, second in runs, first in slugging, first in home runs, fifth in doubles and first in extra-base hits.
Led by the switch-hitting duo of Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana, the raw power of Mark Reynolds and the speed and athleticism of Michael Bourn and Michael Brantley, Francona is overseeing an offensive attack that hearkens back to his early days in Boston.
The names may not evoke reactions like "Manny" or "Papi" did in 2003, but the production speaks for itself.
If Cleveland can receive average to above-average starting pitching behind Justin Masterson, it'll remain in the AL Central race with Detroit all summer long.
While the team was expected to be much improved from the 68-94 mess of 2012, few saw their additions—despite Francona's arrival—as more than a jump from bad to average. If it all broke right, a finish slightly above .500 seemed reasonable for the 2013 Indians.
By punishing Ryan Dempster and the Boston bullpen, though, Francona's new team sent a message: As Memorial Day approaches, the Indians are to be taken seriously in the AL hierarchy.
After last night's victory, coupled with New York's idle evening, Cleveland now boasts the third-best run differential in the American League, trailing only Detroit and Texas.
Considering that their minus-178 differential in 2012 was easily the worst in the American League—trailing only the dreadful Houston Astros in all of baseball—the early-season returns been even more eye-opening.
This weekend isn't just about Francona's return and ovation at Fenway; it's about his new team establishing a place on the map as a legitimate contender, along with the Boston Red Sox.
Chants of "Tito! Tito! Tito!" rang throughout Fenway Park last evening. If the season continues as it has, Cleveland fans may one day find themselves shouting the same.