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Bob Ryan

With everything in order, it may be just the start they needed

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / July 7, 2004
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What do you call a game in which your leadoff man has five hits; your eighth and ninth men score six runs combined; you bat around in successive innings; you send 39 men to the plate in the first six innings; you never go down 1-2-3; you make the opposing pitcher throw 102 pitches in four innings; you almost have as many hits and walks (22) as outs (24); you catch every ball you should and Manny Ramirez catches one he shouldn't; your starting pitcher throws seven shutout innings and his mopup man isn't bad, either; and, oh yeah, you win 11-0 over a serious wild-card rival?

A good start.

"This is the game people expected us to play 162 times this year," mused Curt Schilling. "That's not realistic."

Ah, Curt, this is Boston. What's realism got to do with anything?

We do not know what this game means for sure, other than it's baseball, and there is no more meaningless sampling in American sport than one baseball game. All we can say is that was an evening in which the 2004 Red Sox, universally acclaimed as baseball's biggest bunch of underachievers in the months of May and June, put together an unbeatable combination of pitching, batting, defense and luck (a Doug Mirabelli grounder going through Scott Hatteberg's legs in advance of a Bill Mueller homer). It was also game No. 81, the season's official halfway point.

Is all the bad stuff out of their system?

"We played a real good ballgame," said manager Terry Francona. "But one game doesn't make the season. That's how I feel after a loss, as much as those hurt, too. But you've got to start somewhere. You can't start anywhere until you get a win."

See. He said it. "Start." He said it twice. This was a start. Good for him. No one wants to hear any more talk about how good this team should be, and what it can accomplish. We need to see it.

In their defense, last night was one of the few times this season Francona was able to write down all the names onto the lineup card that he wanted. Nomar's back. Trot's back. And now Mueller's back. The defending American League batting champion settled into the ninth spot ("He's more comfortable down at the bottom of the order," the skipper had said prior to the game) and reached base three times, the highlight being a three-run homer in the second inning off Barry Zito that got the Red Sox off to a nice, yup, start. Mueller would later single, walk and score twice more.

"This is the team we wanted to have on the field every day since spring training, but it hasn't worked out that way," pointed out Mirabelli, who, as usual, caught Tim Wakefield (three hits in seven superb innings) and who, as has become his 2004 custom, contributed to the offense by reaching base three times -- once on, believe it or not, an infield hit -- and scoring three runs.

There was nothing not to like from a Red Sox viewpoint. It all began with the leadoff man being 5 for 5 by the sixth inning. "I don't know if it's good for me to know what I'm doing well," said Johnny Damon, who boosted his average to .307 with an on-base percentage that is now hovering around .400. "I have no idea. I'm just going up with a positive attitude. The whole team needs to go up that way."

Another key performer was Kevin Millar, who had three hits, including a pair of authoritative doubles. Speaking of Millar's productive night, Francona said, "That's huge. If he hits like he can, I should say, when he hits like he can, that's going to be the biggest spark for us."

The undeniable fact of the matter is that the Red Sox have blown their chance to win the division (OK, yes, the Yankees lost and the lead is down to seven) and that's that. They will undoubtedly say they have conceded nothing, that there's a lot of baseball to play and blah, blah, blah. We will forgive them for this rhetoric because they're just being true to an athletic code.

There remains the matter of the wild card, and that is what they are playing for. And in order to become the wild-card winner they will have to play many more games like this. No, not 11-0 games in which absolutely everything goes their way, but games in which they, as all good baseball men would say (even if they have a PhD in English), hit good, pitch good, catch the ball good, and even run the bases good.

"We just need to focus on the nine innings in front of us," said Schilling. "Which is not always easy to do around here."

Oh, you mean just because this is a town where every win is magnified and, far worse, every loss is a catastrophe? Is that what you mean, Curt?

But, yes, absolutely, this is a very important homestand. The Red Sox need to establish who they are between now and the All-Star break in these six games with Oakland and Texas.

Francona said it himself in his pregame session with the press: "I'm tired of saying, `We've got to do this.' We need to just do it."

And then they went out and did it, backing up Wakefield's best performance of the season with 17 hits (on a night when AL RBI leader David Ortiz was 0 for 6 while stranding 4,206 runners) and flawless defense. This was about as ridiculously one-sided as a game can get. When you score 11 and leave 14 (six times leaving two men on), you've got a lot of base runners. It is an indication of what the team can be.

"I look at it from a pitcher's perspective," Schilling said. "You've got the American League batting champion batting ninth. You've got guys who know how to work the count up and down the order. There are no breaks. I can tell you I would not want to face this lineup."

The season is half over. They have messed up the first half. But a half is a half. They have 81 games remaining in which to play the kind of baseball they were supposed to play.

"We're home," said Francona. "We're where we want to be. We've got five games left until the All-Star break, so let's see if we can do something."

Last night was a start. Let's leave it at that.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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