The team with the best record in baseball had its pitchers on the field at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday going through defensive drills. It looked like a typical morning in spring training.
“We’re not cutting any corners,” third base coach Brian Butterfield said as he came out of the dugout, fungo bat in hand.
The same was true once the game started as the Sox finished off a series sweep of the lowly Houston Astros with a 6-1 victory.
Until Sunday, the only sellouts at Fenway Park this season had come on Opening Day and Patriots Day. But a crowd of 36,527 turned out to see the Sox finish their homestand.
If you build a good team, they will come. The 18-7 Red Sox are two full games better than any other team, and playing their best baseball since prior to the 2011 All-Star break. They have won five straight and have outscored opponents by 40 runs, the largest margin in baseball.
The Sox also have matched a franchise record for victories in April with one game to play.
It doesn’t feel like a fluke, either. John Lackey came off the disabled list to allow one run over six innings. Red Sox starters are now 15-4 with a 3.14 earned run average and have formed the base of the team’s success.
The Sox are second in the majors in runs and are playing well defensively.
“For any team, for any individual, it’s important to get off to a good start,” manager John Farrell said. “I think this month has been a reflection of all our guys have done in spring training. It’s been buoyed by our rotation to be as consistent as it’s been.”
Adding Lackey back into the rotation will continue that trend based on how he pitched, even though it was against the Astros. After giving up a run in the first inning, Lackey wasn’t touched again. He retired 13 in a row at one point.
“Honestly, it was better than expected in most ways today,” said Farrell, who was hoping for five innings.
It had been 614 long days since Lackey won a game in the major leagues. The righthander missed last season recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery.
He then strained his right biceps during his first start of the season and went on the disabled list for three weeks.
Lackey threw 27 pitches in the first inning. He threw only 54 over the five innings that followed. From the start of the second inning until the final out in the sixth, 13 of Houston’s 19 plate appearance ended in either one or two pitches.
“They definitely got pretty aggressive on me, so I was trying to locate the fastball most of the time,” Lackey said. “Guys made some nice plays on the infield for me and kind of got through those pretty quick.”
In the sixth inning, Houston loaded the bases with one out on three straight singles. Lackey struck out Fernando Martinez, then got Matt Dominguez to ground into a force at second.
Lackey left the mound to a loud cheer.
“It was fun. It was definitely a first big challenge in a long time,” Lackey said. “To be able to get the strikeout and the ground ball to get out of there was a lot of fun, exciting.”
Mike Napoli said the players on the field were thrilled to see Lackey complete the inning.
“It means a lot, especially after that first inning,” Napoli said. “In my mind, I was hoping he would get through five. But he battled and he found it.”
Lackey and Napoli were teammates with the Angels, and Lackey helped recruit the first baseman to Boston.
“We’re going to need him,” Napoli said. “Hopefully he stays healthy. When he’s healthy, I’ve seen him do good things.”
Clayton Mortensen, Koji Uehara, and Andrew Bailey each threw a shutout inning in relief.
Houston starter Bud Norris (3-3) allowed five runs (three earned) over six innings as his countdown to the trade deadline continued.
David Ortiz was 2 for 4 with a double and two more RBIs. He is 16 of 31 with seven extra-base hits and 11 RBIs in eight games since coming off the disabled list.
“It’s unbelievable right now,” Dustin Pedroia said. “Everything he hits, it’s hard. He’s doing everything even more than we thought of without having a spring [training].”
Daniel Nava was 2 for 4, scored three runs, and ended the game with a diving catch in right field.
Stephen Drew had his second two-run triple in five days. It gave the Red Sox the lead in the fourth inning. The Sox scored 28 runs on 51 hits (23 for extra bases) in the four-game sweep.
For the Red Sox, the start of the season has been better than they ever could have envisioned.
“We’re playing good ball. We’re doing the right things. Offensively, pitching, defense,” Pedroia said. “We’re putting the work in. We’ve just got to stay focused and keep doing that.
“We’ve got a good group . . . Hopefully we can build on this month and keep it rolling.”