Ramírez, Red Sox stay the course
Manny Ramírez put a smile on the faces of Kevin Youkilis and Mark Loretta with his opposite-field three-run homer, the big blow during the Red Sox four-run third inning against the As. (Getty Images Photo / Jed Jacobsohn)
OAKLAND, Calif. -- One must always allow for the prospect, even after last night's 7-3 Red Sox win over the Oakland Athletics, that Manny Ramírez may awaken today to an entirely new world of possibilities. Perhaps he has dreams of relocating to his wife's native Brazil to become a gaucho, riding tall in the saddle. Maybe he'd like to return to his old neighborhood on the far side of Manhattan, strutting through the streets with a boom box on his shoulder the same way he did in the Sox clubhouse the other day, saying, ``This is how we do it in Washington Heights."
Or maybe he'll choose to spend the rest of his days playing Wiffle ball on the beach with little Manolito and siblings present and future.
But happily for the Red Sox and their aspirations for October, Ramírez seems no more inclined to want any of these scenarios to materialize this week as he is to ask to be traded. By most any measure, that represents spectacular progress from this time a year ago, when a change of address was foremost on Manny's wish list.
A night after Ramírez had arguably his roughest game of the season Sunday in Seattle, misplaying a couple of balls in left field, he rebounded in splendid fashion, hitting a three-run home run off Oakland's All-Star lefthander, Barry Zito. That was the biggest blow on a night that Alex Gonzalez and David Ortiz also went deep in support of Josh Beckett, who went six strong innings (5 hits, 3 earned runs) to become the majors' first 13-game winner.
No one had defended Ramírez more ardently in Seattle than manager Terry Francona.
``This kid's been solid with me all year, I'm not kidding you," Francona said after the Sox maintained their 2 1/2-game lead over the Yankees (6-2 winners against Texas). ``I felt [Sunday] night like I needed to protect him. He's busting his butt. He had a tough day, and it hurt us. But you know what? That's my responsibility. I've got no problem with that responsibility. He deserves it."
In the days leading up to the trading deadline last July, the Red Sox were roiled by controversy, when Ramírez, inflamed by the belief that Francona unfairly maligned him for insisting on taking a day off the night after the Sox lost fellow outfielder Trot Nixon to injury, demanded to be traded. The Sox came close to accommodating him, engaging the Mets in serious talks before Ramírez withdrew his request, leading to a tumultuous celebration at Fenway Park when the deadline passed and Ramírez came out of the dugout to deliver a game-winning pinch hit.
Ramírez renewed his demand to be traded over the winter, but when spring training rolled around, he showed up in camp, arguably in the best shape of his career. And now? Sunday afternoon in Seattle, behind the batting cage, there was Francona, embracing his left fielder, who appeared delighted to be on the receiving end of that warm gesture.
``I think people lose sight -- this is not a popularity contest, like with the manager," Francona said. ``You want an atmosphere where guys want to do the right thing. That's what I care about. We try to do that a lot."
Francona said he didn't feel the need to verbalize his support to Ramírez after Sunday's misadventures.
``I hope I have a way of doing that [without articulating it]," Francona said. ``He's done such a good job this year, every once in a while when we have a bump in the road I don't want to make [a big deal of it]. I just want to let him know I appreciate him."
And besides, the last player you have to worry about suffering a hangover effect from a bad game is Ramírez.
``He doesn't even remember, you know that," Francona said. ``He doesn't even remember."
In these parts, Ramírez is not likely to be soon forgotten for the three-run homer he blasted off Zito in Game 5 of the 2003 AL Division Series, the last time Oakland qualified for the October tournament. Ramírez doesn't hit Zito often. But when he does, the ball tends to travel great distances. Of the six hits Ramírez has against Zito, including a single last night, three have left the premises, not including the postseason shot.
So what if Ramírez stood in front of a clubhouse TV before yesterday's game, clapping after Derek Jeter hit a bases-clearing triple in the Yankees game? That misplaced enthusiasm was a mere trifle on a night that the Sox, who hit five home runs Friday night in Seattle in the opener of this six-game West Coast swing, took Zito deep early and often last night.
Gonzalez opened the Sox scoring in the third by hitting a hanging curve from Zito into the left-field seats for his eighth homer of the season. Kevin Youkilis and Mark Loretta followed with singles before Ramírez unloaded on a Zito fastball, driving it onto the ledge just above the right-field scoreboard.
The Sox scored twice more in the fourth to make it 6-0. Mike Lowell doubled, Wily Mo Peña was hit by a pitch, and Coco Crisp singled in one run, with Youkilis delivering the other with a sacrifice fly.
Ortiz led off the fifth with his major league-leading 34th home run. It was his 12th off a lefty, drawing him even with Cleveland's Travis Hafner for most in the league off lefthanders, all the more impressive because the lefthanded-hitting Ortiz is supposedly at a disadvantage with a lefty on the mound.
Meanwhile, Ramírez is fast ending the discussion of why he supposedly can't hit lefties anymore. He now has 9 hits in his last 19 at-bats against lefthanders.
While Zito was absorbing his worst beating since the Yankees hung a 7-spot on him in the A's opener, Beckett cruised in his first start since coming to terms on a three-year, $30 million contract. He held the Athletics to Mark Ellis's third-inning single before Nick Swisher opened the fifth with a home run, but by that time the Sox already were ahead, 7-0.
Francona, by all accounts, played a central role in brokering Beckett's new deal. Did either side give him a commission?
``I'm waiting," he said. ``I told [general manager] Theo [Epstein], [after] he gave me a handshake, I said, `That's not what I'm really looking for.' "
Mike Timlin, who'd given up Richie Sexson's walkoff home run that beat the Sox Sunday in Seattle, got what he was looking for in the eighth after giving up a single to Milton Bradley and walking Frank Thomas to start the inning.
``I put everybody back on their heels with that walk to Thomas," Timlin said. ``Jason [Varitek] came out and said, `What are you doing?'
``I said, `I'm thinking too much.' He said, `Stop doing that.' "
Jay Payton, the next batter, hit into a double play started by third baseman Mike Lowell, the last of three DPs turned by the Sox, and Swisher flied to right. See what happens when a Texan stops thinking?
``Yep," Timlin said. ``The Nuke Laloosh effect."