CHICAGO -- Nothing good normally comes of a pitching coach wanting to assault his own starting pitcher. Nothing good, that is, unless they both work for the suddenly irrepressible Red Sox.
On a day when Sox starter Bronson Arroyo's stamina and pitching arsenal betrayed him -- "I just felt really sluggish, like I was throwing underwater," he said -- pitching coach Dave Wallace tossed aside his scouting reports, statistical matchups, and time-honored code of positive reinforcement for a little tough love.
"He just asked me if I wanted him to smack me in the side of the face," Arroyo said. "He went, `You need to wake up and get things going.' "
Arroyo responded the best he could, which was good enough for a Sox team that seems to have magically turned months of mediocrity into something special. Treating one of Arroyo's rockiest outings of the season as if it were just another pebble on the basepaths, the Sox rallied behind the mighty bats of Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek for their fifth straight victory as they snuffed the White Sox, 10-7, yesterday before 37,303 at US Cellular Field.
So it was that Arroyo went from barely escaping a smackdown to the winner's circle as the Sox improved to 13-6 in August, won a third straight road series for the first time this year, and maintained a share of the wild-card lead.
Life seemed so good in the heady aftermath that it even became acceptable to break a taboo and entertain a wild notion.
"It's a 6 1/2-game deficit all of a sudden," Kevin Millar said of the dwindling gap between the Sox and Yankees in the American League East. "And what do we have, six games left with them?"
Never mind that the Yankees have never relinquished a lead so large. The Sox suddenly felt strong enough to consider the implausible after they submitted the latest in a string of solid performances, this one powered by Ramirez, who knocked in five runs with a three-run homer and a pair of singles, and the white-hot Varitek, who scorched his 16th and 17th jacks of the season and has shown no sign of late-season fatigue.
"We're just confident right now," Millar said. "We're getting that swagger back . . . I don't think we've had that all year until this last couple of weeks. That's the swagger you need to take into the postseason."
So what if Arroyo lacked it from the moment he began warming up. He persevered to improve to 6-9 with a 4.29 ERA despite surrendering five runs on seven hits, three walks, and two hit batsmen over 5 2/3 innings.
"I felt bad from the get-go," he said. "Warming up in the pen, you know you don't look too good when you walk out and [Wallace] says, `You need to battle today.' I knew it was going to be a struggle."
Fortunately for him, the Sox battled with him. Before Arroyo fired his first pitch, Ramirez slugged his league-leading 32d homer of the season, a three-run shot off lefthanded starter Josh Stewart, a Triple A call-up. Johnny Damon singled to left-center leading off and Orlando Cabrera reached on a bunt single (the first of the year for the Sox) to set the table for Ramirez.
"Everybody is playing great," Ramirez said. "Everybody is swinging the bat good. We're in a good rhythm right now. We just have to keep going."
Which they did, despite the White Sox tagging Arroyo for two runs in the bottom of the first and three more in the third. The Sox countered with two runs in the second inning on RBI singles by Damon and Ramirez and picked up two more in the third on Millar's RBI double and Gabe Kapler's sacrifice fly.
For manager Terry Francona, who has watched the Sox underachieve much of the season, the rallies were emblematic of a team finding its stride, at least for the short term. He knew better than to predict the future. "We show up thinking you're going to win," he said. "And I think we're doing that, deservedly so."
Varitek gave Arroyo some breathing room by sandwiching his solo homers in the fifth and seventh around Ramirez's RBI single in the sixth for a 10-5 lead. And while Varitek is usually the last player to accept the status quo, he said he likes what he has seen.
"I think we've had the confidence all year," he said. "We've had a good clubhouse all year. We've gone about it for the majority of the year playing the game hard and playing the game right, and we just hadn't been able to stick anything together. Now, we've finally had some results. And when the results start to happen, things get rolling."
With Arroyo leaving runners at first and second with two outs in the sixth, Mike Timlin escaped the inning after walking Juan Uribe by striking out Carl Everett on a 3-and-2 fastball. Everett was so incensed by Doug Eddings calling the previous pitch from Timlin a strike that he protested vehemently enough to get himself tossed.
Without Everett, the White Sox picked up two late runs to make things interesting. Timlin surrendered a run-scoring double to Ross Gload in the seventh and Terry Adams allowed a solo shot to Joe Crede in the eighth. But Keith Foulke finished things off in the ninth for his 21st save.
Which was just fine with Arroyo, who has lost several well-pitched games this year. "Everything seems to be clicking," Arroyo said, "and we're playing ball the way we should be."