Just when you think it can't get any better than this -- a doubleheader sweep, a lights-out return by Byung Hyun Kim, the biggest crowd in 14 years showing up on an April afternoon for a makeup game against Tampa Bay, Red Sox executives fanning out through the stands picking up trash, more big hits by David Ortiz -- there was also this:
Nomar Garciaparra, between games yesterday, working out for a third straight day, running from foul line to Green Monster, taking ground balls at shortstop, snapping throws across the infield, looking more and more like a guy planning his reentry into the baseball universe sooner rather than later.
Their best-record-in-baseball status notwithstanding, the Sox should be as energized by the return of their All-Star shortstop -- as well as the impending return of Trot Nixon, who played again yesterday in Florida -- as they were elated by the 2004 debut of Kim, whose performance was both delightful and decorous. Kim's only hand gesture yesterday was a modest fist pump at the end of a five-inning, one-hit performance that was rewarded with a 4-0 Sox win, the team's third straight shutout, in the first game against the Devil Rays.
Garciaparra said it will be at least another two weeks before he comes back, and with any kind of setback it could be even longer, regardless of how good he looked yesterday. But in the interim the Sox raised their record to 15-6 after beating the Devil Rays in the second game, 7-3, their sixth straight win and ninth in the last 10 games. "If you're going to be here all day, the best way to go about it is to win two," said Terry Francona, whose bullpen has now strung together 32 1/3 scoreless innings over the last 11 games, the longest streak by a Sox bullpen in the more than 30 years since Elias Sports Bureau has kept track of such information.
Scott Williamson and Keith Foulke closed out the night with a scoreless inning apiece after volunteer reliever Tim Wakefield, Mike Timlin, and Alan Embree shut down the D-Rays over the last four innings in the matinee.
"It's a lot of fun," said Derek Lowe, who won the nightcap even though he spotted the D-Rays two unearned runs in the first, ending a stretch of 32 straight scoreless innings dating to the seventh inning of Saturday's 3-2, 12-inning win over the Yankees in New York. "The starters are giving us the innings and obviously the bullpen is 32 scoreless. I said in spring training, we have a rotation like ours, you are not going to go on a losing streak, and when you have all five guys pitching well, you are going to be watching wins."
A thing of beauty? No more so than the sight of general manager Theo Epstein and executive vice president Charles Steinberg, among others, picking up empty beer cups and hot dog wrappers between games, part of a new initiative launched by the club to clean up the yard.
Kim heard only cheers on his first appearance this year in Fenway Park, scene of last October's ill-advised flippancy on his part. "Maybe the fans who didn't like me didn't show up," a smiling Kim said through translator Chang Lee, after showing no ill effects from the right shoulder strain that had shut him down after a spring training outing March 10.
"I was worried about a good start more than how the fans are going to react. I wanted the team to win today, the way the team is playing."
Ortiz provided the necessary muscle in the first game with a two-run home run off Devil Rays ace Victor Zambrano, who whiffed a career-high 10 batters in six innings but made the mistake of grooving a 3-and-0 fastball to the Sox' designated hitter with two outs in the fifth inning of a scoreless tie. Ortiz deposited the pitch into the center-field triangle -- Conig's Corner -- an area previously covered by a black tarp during day games to provide a proper backdrop for hitters, but yesterday occupied by a sea of spectators clad in green T-shirts dispensed by ushers, the ingenious way Sox management invented to use the section.
"Horrible," Tampa Bay right fielder Jose Cruz Jr. said of having to face Wakefield's knuckler after trying to unscramble Kim's deceptive motion. "And then Timlin? It was definitely trying."
With Lowe starting last night, the Sox were within reach of the club record of 39 straight scoreless innings set in 1919. But the Devil Rays, who are the lowest-scoring team in the American League and have been held to one or no runs in seven games this season, broke through immediately against Lowe. Carl Crawford hit Lowe's first pitch for a double, Julio Lugo reached when Lowe bobbled his sacrifice bunt for an error, and after Aubrey Huff was thrown out on a tapper to the mound, Rocco Baldelli's roller to second scored Crawford.
Robert Fick followed by lining a double to right to make it 2-0 against Lowe, looking as untidy on the hill as Doc Rivers, the new Celtics coach who dribbled in the ceremonial first pitch. Both runs off Lowe were deemed unearned.
Whatever relief the Devil Rays may have felt by ending their 0-for-Fenway dissipated in the bottom of the first, when the Sox scored five runs before Devil Rays lefthander Damian Moss retired a batter. The Sox went walk, single, single, single, and three-run home run by Jason Varitek, who reached the first row of the Monster Seats, to make it 5-2.
David McCarty followed with a single before Mark Bellhorn, the seventh batter of the inning, looked at a called third strike for the first out. When Gabe Kapler doubled to the left-center gap, Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella had seen enough. He replaced Moss with John Halama, who already had worked in the first game. Pokey Reese greeted Halama with a two-run Wall-banger single to make it 7-2.
For the third time in his four starts, Lowe was the recipient of generous run support. He won his first start, 10-3, over the Orioles, then after losing, 7-3, to the Yankees, came back to beat the Bombers, 11-2, last Friday in New York.
Kim, who had made three rehab appearances in the minors, did not have a similar margin for error, but the only hit he allowed was a second-inning line single by Tino Martinez, and that turned into an out when it struck Cruz, aboard on a walk, in the back.
"I saw him in the bullpen, I didn't know what to expect," said catcher Doug Mirabelli, who drew the assignment of catching the 25-year-old Korean. "I hadn't seen him in Florida, so I was a little nervous about it.
"But as soon as I saw him throw his first fastball -- he kind of threw a get-me-over fastball first to make sure his feet were all right -- but his next pitch was `foooom,' right where he wanted it to be. It was like, `Whoa, I haven't seen that in a while.'
"It wasn't a slinging fastball. It was, `I'm going to let it go right here and it's going to end up in the glove.' It was crisp. His problem is throwing strikes sometimes. He gets a lot of swings at balls, but when he's at a point when he needs a strike, it's always kind of been, `I hope I can throw a strike.' Today it was, `I can throw a strike whenever I want to throw a strike.' "
Mirabelli, who during spring training had lamented a lack of communication with Kim, primarily but not entirely because of the language difference, also applauded Kim's improvement in that regard.
"I think he's making a conscious effort to really be responsive," Mirabelli said. "Just in the last couple of hours, I saw a little difference in his personality than I normally see. He was more responsive to planning the game, going over the hitters. I think he's starting to understand; he wants to be more responsive. He was a good teammate today."