Understandably lost in the rubble left by the explosion that came soon after, the means by which the Red Sox actually scored the winning run in Wednesday's 20-4 trouncing of the Tigers was overlooked -- if not forgotten.
On a night when the club would match a franchise record by blasting eight home runs, and score 15 runs over its final three at-bats, the tally that broke a 4-all tie in the fifth inning wa born from a steal. After singling to center, Shane Victorino swiped second base, took third when the throw got away, and scored on a sacrifice fly.
A night later, this time in New York, speed killed again for the Sox. The run that tied the game in the ninth, as well as the run that won the game in the 10th, both came after the winning run reached scoring position by way of a steal. And as October approaches, bringing with it the type of tight baseball where every extra base can make a critical difference (hello, Dave Roberts), these past couple nights have shown just how much of a weapon the ability to steal bases could be for the Red Sox.
Buoyed by Jacoby Ellsbury's league-leading 52 thefts -- the 52nd of which led to Thursday's winner -- the Sox rank second in the American League with 111 steals as a team. Equally important is the efficiency with which they've reached that number; they've been successful on 85 percent of their steal attempts, which is best in the league, and which means they haven't given up a lot of outs.
Lately, though, they haven't given up any. The Sox haven't been caught stealing since Ellsbury was nabbed on Aug. 8. Including three more Thursday, their last 27 steal attempts have been successful. According to the Globe's Peter Abraham, that's the longest streak any Sox team has experienced since folks started tracking the stat, which is a span of 85 years.
But what makes that even more impressive, and the stolen base even more of a weapon, is that these steals haven't been hollow. They haven't been three seconds of action and excitement and riskiness that winds up all for naught.
With Quintin Berry and Ellsbury crossing the plate, the Sox have now converted 15 of those 27 steals directly into runs. That's 56 percent. By comparison, Boston has scored 32 percent of its baserunners overall this season -- so in the instances where they've attempted to steal a base over the past month, they've improved their chances of scoring by roughly 75 percent.
Obviously a big part of that success relies on the hitter(s) who follows, and whose responsibility is to knock the thief home. However, the Sox rank second in the AL in batting average, and are first in both on-base percentage and OPS. It stands to reason that if you give a deep and capable offense like theirs as many opportunities as possible to hit with a runner in scoring position, runs will follow. (The stats bear that out, too, as the Sox lead the majors with 1,627 plate appearances and 538 RBIs when hitting with men at second and/or third.)
Steals are a quick way to get yourself in those situations, and lately the Sox have made accruing them look easy. It may not remain so easy into October -- but, then again, nothing's easy at that time of year. Every available weapon makes a team more dangerous.
And the past couple of nights have shown just what a weapon this knack for stealing bases could be for the Sox.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||3-for-6, R, RBI, BB, K, 2B, SB: He did get picked off first in the sixth, but his legs ultimately made the difference. The ground-rule double that started the scoring didn't hurt, either.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||2-for-6, R, 3 RBI, K, HR, SB: He homered from the right side against a righty earlier, but his biggest knock was the 10th-inning single that marked the fourth time his hit was responsible for a last-at-bat Red Sox win.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-6, K: His lone hit was a single through Monument Park --- which might as well be rebranded as the name of the vast indefensible area between Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter on the left side of the infield.|
|David Ortiz, DH||2-for-4, R, 2 BB, K: A night after totaling 10 total bases the Yankees wanted no part of him, intentionally walking him twice -- the first time as early as the third inning.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||1-for-3, R, 2 BB, 2B: That's now 40 straight starts in which Nava has reached base, tying Mike Trout for second-longest in the AL this season. If he gets to 44, he'll match Miguel Cabrera for the AL long in 2013, and Kevin Youkilis for the Red Sox record.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||2-for-4, RBI, BB, 2 K: He laid off a couple of tough pitches to get the count full against Rivera, then lined to right the single that gave the Sox a chance.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-5, RBI, 3 K: Drew came up against the greatest closer of all-time at 0-for-4 in the game, with three strikeouts. He took a pitch to let Berry steal, then smacked him home with a single. In the ninth, he and Napoli typified the mental toughness of this team.|
|Ryan Lavarnway, C||2-for-4, R, 2 RBI: He's found his stroke at the plate, up to .318 on the season and 12-for-26 since July 29. But the Yankees showed little respect for him as a catcher, stealing five bases against him without being thrown out.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||2-for-5, 2 R, RBI, K, HR: His second homer in as many games was a no-doubter, and another sign that he's at least capable of punishing mistakes made by pitchers.|
|Jake Peavy, SP||6 IP, 4 ER, 6 H, 3 BB, 4 K, 3 2B: He earned the right to come out for the seventh, so it's on him for letting the first two men reach. When they both scored it spoiled his linescore, but by and large he was pretty decent.|
|Matt Thornton, RP||0.1 IP, H, BB: He managed to get a ground ball out of Robinson Cano with the bases loaded, but still allowed both inherited runners to score and walked Jeter.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||0.2 IP, 2 ER, 3 H, 2 K: He's now allowed five of the last 13 runners he's inherited to score, which is not good for the guy the Sox have counted on to preserve seventh- and eighth-inning leads.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||2 IP, BB: He was solid over two innings, save for a walk to Soriano -- who bailed out the southpaw by falling for Breslow's second straight swing move and getting picked off second in the ninth.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||IP, 2 K: Twenty pitches ties the most he's thrown since June 18, but it was still three up and three down -- and the night validated this thought: Entering this October, you'd rather have him than Rivera as your closer.|
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