Yes, Sox management appreciates Bill Mueller as Johnny Damon does -- ''I want my son to play like Billy Mueller," Damon said last night -- but the Red Sox' recent willingness to include Mueller in a deal for Twins reliever J.C. Romero comes with good reason.
The 29-year-old lefthander arrived for this weekend's series in Boston having faced 469 lefthanded hitters during the last four seasons, and Romero had allowed an extra-base hit only 11 times. Only four times had he allowed a home run. Really.
And so, when John Olerud, with five hits in 41 July at-bats, came to the plate as Romero came out of the Minnesota bullpen with no outs and the bases loaded in the eighth inning last night, it was most definitely, Advantage Romero.
And yet, there was Olerud, at his locker postgame, saying, ''That's as well as I've hit a ball all year."
Olerud, ahead 2-and-1 against Romero, had looked for a fastball in, gotten one, and lined it, with the kind of force usually reserved for the likes of David Ortiz, onto the roof of the Sox bullpen. That turned a tenuous 4-3 lead into an 8-3 advantage, providing the winning runs in an 8-5 victory, giving the Sox seven wins in 10 games after beginning the month losing seven of nine.
''Olerud is one of the few lefties in the league that could make that adjustment," Romero said.
And yet Olerud did, further prompting postgame chatter among the Sox as to whether any roster adjustments need to be made before tomorrow's 4 p.m. trade deadline. The Sox are in need of a power lefthander, but Romero struggled while Mueller singled and homered. His fifth homer of the year, in the seventh inning, was a lazy fly ball that hugged Pesky Pole before disappearing into the stands in right to give the Sox a 4-1 lead.
''I love Billy," Damon said after the win, which, coupled with the Yankees' loss, pushed the Red Sox 2 1/2 games ahead of New York. ''He's been huge for us."
Bronson Arroyo, a player the Sox discussed when talking with Florida about A.J. Burnett, delivered 7 1/3 innings and, for the second straight start, found himself talking about whether this might have been his last start in a Boston uniform.
''No," Arroyo said, when asked if he's been told he won't be dealt. ''But I'm pretty confident that I'll still be around here after the 31st."
Arroyo can be confident because he's three things the Red Sox need: healthy, relatively consistent, and unaffected by struggle. Despite not striking out anyone, he allowed just three runs on five hits and a walk, lowering his ERA to 4.22, better than Matt Clement (4.43), David Wells (4.57), and Wade Miller (4.57). Miller was supposed to start but the decision to scratch him was made Wednesday when Miller complained of a stiff shoulder and was diagnosed with ''mild tendinitis."
Despite having what he deemed the worst curveball he's had in his career Sunday in Chicago, Arroyo was dropping breaking balls on Twins hitters consistently and effectively last night, his only real mistake was a hanger that Joe Mauer hit out of the park to lead off the seventh, pulling the Twins within 3-1.
Boston, by the way, had scored those three runs on as ridiculous a play as you'll see. In the fifth, with Mueller (single) and Tony Graffanino (single) aboard, Damon broke his bat in half but still managed a single to right, beginning quite a sequence.
Right fielder Jacque Jones threw low and hard and by cutoff man Justin Morneau, the first baseman. Mueller crossed the plate as the ball skipped by catcher Mauer. The ball headed toward the backstop, and Graffanino scored when pitcher Carlos Silva, backing up the play, threw wide of Mauer to the wall by the first-base seats.
Morneau picked up the ball and saw Damon one-third of the way down the third base line. He threw to third baseman Luis Rodriguez, but, when Rodriguez attempted to throw home, he hit Damon in the back of the head. That allowed Damon to score on a single and two errors.
Lamented Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, ''Morneau should have cut it. Joe should have caught it. Silva should have ate it. Rodriguez shouldn't have hit the guy in the head."
In the eighth, Arroyo walked the leadoff hitter, Bret Boone, then surrendered a triple to designated hitter Terry Tiffee that Damon, despite a valiant skywalk, couldn't pull down. Arroyo faced one more batter and was relieved by Mike Timlin, who recorded two consecutive outs to end the inning, though one of them -- a Shannon Stewart ground out -- scored a run.
Olerud hit his slam in the bottom of the inning -- his eighth career grand slam and the team's 10th of the season, setting a franchise record in the 102d game.
Mike Myers entered with an 8-3 lead to pitch the ninth but couldn't do it himself. With one on and one out, Jones powered a Myers offering out of the park, pulling the Twins within 8-5.
Terry Francona allowed Myers to face one more hitter, the lefthanded Morneau, and he singled, leading Francona to call for Curt Schilling, who has now factored in the Sox' last four decisions (two saves, a win, and a loss).
With a three-run lead, Schilling fanned Boone on eight pitches, then induced Tiffee to line to short to end the game. This marked the second time this season, and second time in as many games, that Schilling entered during an inning. Wasn't that something Francona didn't want to do?
''That was years ago," the skipper joked. ''That was like two weeks ago."
Added Francona: ''I thought it was time to pitch him. I think this is good for Schill, that [repetitive] pitching. I think he's crisper, his pitches are sharp."