The fixation with the team that plays on 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx makes it much harder for fans to abide the win-one, lose-one approach that has marked the Red Sox' play for the better part of two months. And the notion of dropping a series at home to the Kansas City Royals, a team that has lost 100 games or more in three of the last four seasons? Unthinkable.
But even with Manny Ramírez hitting his 14th home run and expanding his comfort zone in left field, Jason Varitek throwing out two base runners attempting to steal, and revivalist Julio Lugo delivering another big hit, the Sox found the Royals to be more troublesome than advertised once again last night. The Sox fell, 6-5, in the rubber game of their three-game set before 36,681 at Fenway Park.
David Ortiz singled with two outs in the ninth to put the tying run on base, but Ramírez popped to second off Royals closer Octavio Dotel, who has held the Sox slugger hitless in six career at-bats. With the Yankees winning their fifth in a row last night, the Sox' lead over the Bombers is now seven games, six in the loss column.
"This Red Sox-Yankees thing is something that consumes this whole city," said third baseman Mike Lowell, whose fifth-inning error greased Julian Tavarez's breakdown, the Royals scoring four times to match the four runs the Sox had scored in the fourth to take a 4-2 lead.
"And we're actually fortunate. I mean, we play .500 baseball for over a month and we're up seven games? We've got to be lucky. We could be down seven games. We're almost dodging a bullet. I don't think anyone expected us to be up seven games at this point of the season. [Curt Schilling] has been out for a while; he's coming back. That's like acquiring a front-line starter at the [trading] deadline. We've got to look at that as a positive."
It probably will be of small comfort for Sox fans to know that neither of the teams that met in the World Series last season, the Tigers and Cardinals, played winning baseball after the All-Star break, as one alert chat boarder noted yesterday on the Sons of Sam Horn. The Tigers were 36-38, the Cardinals 35-39, yet met for the big prize in October.
On a night when the Yankees staged another late-inning rally to win and edge even closer, no one thinks that treading water will keep the Sox afloat come this October.
"It always happens, it always comes out like that," Ortiz said of sighting the Yankees in the rearview mirror. "I always say, it's never over till the last month of the season. I never take the Yankees for granted. They always put a good team together, and they find a way to come from behind and win games. We've got to keep playing, baby. We got to do what we did in the first half, win games."
The Sox tried to mount a comeback of their own, Coco Crisp barely missing a tying home run in the eighth. For the second straight night, Crisp had to settle for a triple when the ball hit the top of the low retaining wall, and he was stranded at third when Lugo flied out.
"That's all I got," Crisp said. "This field's not friendly to me. Yesterday I hit a home run. Today I hit a home run to tie up the ballgame. It is what it is. I'm playing here. I've got to deal with it."
The Royals may have given Tavarez, who is 0-4 with a 7.71 ERA in his last five starts and has failed to go six innings in any of them, another firm push toward losing his spot in the Sox' rotation. The Royals, who had taken a 2-0 lead on four singles and a sacrifice fly in the fourth, made Tavarez and the Sox pay for Lowell's error.
"It definitely opened the floodgates," Lowell said of error No. 14, which matched his career high, a ground ball by Mark Teahen that came up, Lowell said, more than he expected and ticked off his glove. "No error is fun, and when they get a string of hits together, trust me, I feel worse than anyone out there."
Tavarez did not survive the uprising, which began with a one-out bunt single by David DeJesus. Mark Grudzielanek doubled off the Wall, and DeJesus scored when the ball bounced over the head of Ramírez on the rebound. The Sox left fielder last night assumed his position at normal depth after several balls this homestand had flown over his head. The shift came at the urging, Crisp thought, of coach DeMarlo Hale, who positions the outfielders.
Teahen reached on Lowell's error. Billy Butler followed with a drive into the left-center-field gap for a two-run double, and after an infield out, Alex Gordon singled home Butler.
Ramírez, whose single had touched off Boston's four-run fourth, which also featured a two-run double by Lugo, homered off Royals starter Odalis Perez to dead center field to cut the deficit to 6-5. But for the second straight game, the Sox had to contend with Joakim Soria.
Soria's story reads like something out of a Telemundo novella, but he may be having the best year of any setup man this side of Hideki Okajima. He pitched in Single A ball last season and was a Rule 5 pick from the Padres in December. He not only made it to the big leagues with the Royals, but over the All-Star break returned to his native Mexico to be married on a beach in San Carlos, Sonora.
As a married man, he has been just as effective as he was when single, which is saying a lot. He is unscored upon in his last 17 games, and has allowed just seven hits in opponents' last 62 at-bats.
Soria entered to face Ramírez with Dustin Pedroia aboard on an infield hit with two outs in the seventh. Soria threw six straight fastballs to Ramírez, walking him on a full count. He threw three more fastballs to Kevin Youkilis before throwing an offspeed pitch. Youkilis tried to punch a ball through the right side, but second baseman Grudzielanek made a sliding stop and threw out Youkilis.
So now, the Yanks are comin'. And with the White Sox here for four starting tonight, Daisuke is on the parapet.
"They've never been out of it," Crisp said of the Bombers. "If we keep playing ball, they won't catch us. If we keep winning one, losing one, then anything's possible. That's the name of the game. If we were down 10 right now to them, we could catch them, too. Our team's that good."
Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.