The three-game sweep of Toronto (27-17), which leaves the Red Sox (25-16) only a half-game out of first place in the American League East, almost goes without mentioning.
In the series, Red Sox Nation was treated to the first home run of the season for David Ortiz, a franchise record-setting 11th consecutive multi-run homer by Jason Bay, a strong return to the lineup for Kevin Youkilis, and an even stronger bounce-back outing for Jon Lester (3-4), who picked up the win in Thursday’s series finale.
Big Papi’s slump has been the most well-documented story so far this season for the Red Sox. But Ortiz is in the best mindset he’s been in all season after lifting the burden of his first home run off his shoulders in Wednesday’s win.
“I feel good, man,” Ortiz told Ian Browne of RedSox.com. “Let’s keep it that way.”
Ortiz didn’t homer again Thursday night, but he did get enough wood on the ball to scratch home a run with an RBI groundout in the first inning. The real story of Thursday’s game, however, was Lester’s performance.
The Blue Jays worked Lester hard all night, with eight hits and two walks and at least one runner reaching base in each of the first five innings.
But Lester battled through every jam (including a two-on, one-out situation that ended in a 4-6-3 double play) and did not allow a run until the seventh, when Ramon Ramirez allowed the inherited Jose Bautista to score on an Aaron Hill single.
Lester finished with 109 pitches in six-and-a-third innings, striking out four. He clearly wanted to finish the seventh inning, but Terry Francona (wary that Lester’s start could end up like his last two, when he unraveled in the late innings) removed him before it got out of hand.
With a 3-4 record, a 5.91 ERA, and 1.61 WHIP, Lester still has a hole to dig himself out of to return to his 2008 form. But his Thursday outing allowed him to think positively going forward.
“I just wanted to make sure that everybody knew I’m not throwing in the towel,” Lester told Browne after the game. “It’s a long season. You’re going to have some bumps in the road, and sometimes those bumps are pretty deep, and you’ve got to dig yourself out of them. Tonight was definitely a step towards getting out of that hole.”
Also a very encouraging sign for the Red Sox was the return of Kevin Youkilis from an abbreviated stint on the disabled list with oblique soreness. In two games in the series, Youkilis went 4-for-8 to raise his batting average from .393 to .402.
“I just went up there and tried to get my timing down,” Youkilis told Adam Kilgore of the Boston Globe. “You’ve just got to work on your timing. Once you get back in there, your body feels good, you should be fine. The timing is going to be off just a little bit. You’re just hoping to find a rhythm and get your body back in sync.”
The timing apparently is not a problem for Youk. Despite none of his hits in the series being for extra bases, he singled in the third inning Thursday to drive Dustin Pedroia home.
He doesn’t quite qualify for the batting title after his time out, but a few more games should change that.
Bay’s 13th home run in the first inning Thursday tied the Red Sox franchise record for consecutive multi-run home runs at 11. He is one off the major league record, shared by some pretty decent company: Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey Jr.
In a contract year, Bay is off to one of the best starts of his career, with 13 home runs and 44 RBI in his first 42 games. While his home run streak is quite impressive, he acknowledged that only some credit is due to his own work.
“Well, I can’t do that without guys getting on,” Bay told Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald. “I can’t do it on my own. It’s a testament to [the rest of the lineup].”
Next up for the Red Sox are the New York Mets in the first interleague series of the season Friday night. Boston immediately gets a big test in two-time Cy Young award winner Johan Santana, who is 5-2 with a league-leading 1.36 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 53 innings.
Santana is coming off his first start of the season in which he yielded more than two earned runs, allowing four on 11 hits in seven innings at San Francisco.
This will be his first start at Fenway Park since Sept. 21, 2006, when he took the loss, allowing two earned runs in five innings.
Perhaps a good omen for the Red Sox is that Ortiz smacked his 51st home run of the 2006 season (which gave him the single-season franchise record) in that game on the first pitch of his first at-bat off Santana.
Boston will counter with the returning Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is back from the disabled list after recovering from arm fatigue, likely stemming from his MVP performance in the World Baseball Classic.
On facing Santana for the first time, Matsuzaka expressed his excitement over the opportunity. But he made sure we knew his focus was completely on his own performance.
“He is one of the greatest pitchers in the game, and I always thought there would be an opportunity to one day face [Santana],” Matsuzaka said. “I just have to concentrate on my pitching.”