BALTIMORE - Manny Ramírez was back in Boston yesterday from his weekend hiatus at home in south Florida, according to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, and today is expected to pick up a bat to determine where he is in his recovery from a strained oblique.
"I think it's an important day, to see how he does," Francona said. "That will be a good indicator."
A mashing cleanup hitter can make a big difference. You need only look at what Alex Rodriguez - who has homered in five straight games - is doing for the Yankees, who have won all five of those games to stay within 5 1/2 games of the Sox in the American League East as the season moves into its last three weeks.
But the Sox have won seven of their last nine games without Ramírez, including yesterday's 3-2 victory over the Orioles in which Josh Beckett won his 18th game, Jonathan Papelbon rang up his 35th save, and Coco Crisp figured in the scoring of the winning run for the second time in four games, delivering J.D. Drew (bloop single and stolen base) with an eighth-inning single.
And while Ramírez's bat has been sorely missed, the defensive play in the outfield has been superb, with rookie Jacoby Ellsbury, who has been filling in for Ramírez in left, joining Gold Glove candidate Crisp in center and Drew, an above-average defender, in right.
"Don't get me wrong, we want Manny back," Francona said, "but in the meantime we're a different-looking team, the way we're running everything down. It's fun for me to watch.
"It may be a different brand of baseball than the Red Sox are used to, but it's a way to win."
Beckett, who gave up seven hits, did not walk a batter and struck out eight in seven innings to add another plank to an already strong candidacy for the Cy Young Award, did not need highlight-reel defense to beat the Orioles. First baseman Kevin Youkilis, who now has played in an AL-record 181 consecutive errorless games at first base, made the day's best play with a diving stop of Tike Redman's fifth-inning smash, while catcher Jason Varitek contributed to a strike-'im-out, throw-'im-out double play when he threw out Luis Rodriguez attempting to steal after Roberts's whiff, which also came in the fifth.
But it's the consistency of the Sox' defense, not its ability to spin nightly web gems (though there have been plenty of those), that has most impressed Beckett, especially in light of questions raised by the departure of the brilliant shortstop Alex Gonzalez and his double-play partner, second baseman Mark Loretta, after last season. Slippage?
"I don't think we have at all," said Beckett, who is backed by numbers showing the Sox committing the second-fewest errors in the league behind the Orioles (74 to 71).
"Everyone's going to make errors, even on routine balls. Gonzo, as great as he was, still made errors. But you make up for them in other ways. A big hit, a diving play. Nobody expects anybody to be perfect, but these guys are unbelievable. Even if they make an error, it's only because they're aggressive."
Part of yesterday's pick-me-up came from Dustin Pedroia, who had three hits and successfully dodged a screaming line-drive double by David Ortiz after his third-inning single. Both players scored when Mike Lowell, who had been 2 for his last 20, grounded a two-run single up the middle, his 102d and 103d RBIs of the season.
"Omigod, that ball almost killed me," Pedroia said of Ortiz's liner. "He hits the ball so hard, you almost don't have time to react."
Pedroia entered the game with just two hits in his previous 16 at-bats, although six of his outs in the first three games here were line drives. And while he hasn't been as perfect afield as Youkilis, he's won the admiration of Beckett, among others. Asked if he had questions about Pedroia entering the season, Beckett said: "Until I got to know him. You've always got to wonder about that, a rookie playing a position that takes a lot of talent.
"But I think he's exceeded everybody's expectations. I see him like another Mike Lowell in the clubhouse. Obviously, he's a smaller presence, but his attitude, it's infectious. It rubs off on other people."
Pedroia didn't lack for confidence when he was hitting a buck-70 in May. Was he as cocky as the rookie Beckett was when he broke in with the Marlins?
"I don't think anyone who knows me considers me cocky," Beckett said. "I feel I know what it takes to do my job, and that's what we all see with Petey. He likes to play that Napoleon role - we all kind of laugh at it - but like I said, his attitude is infectious. He's unbelievable. He really is."
And so the Sox roll along. Their 87th win of the season gave them one more than they had in 2006. They took three of four from the Orioles, even in a series in which two starters, Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka, didn't get past the fourth inning and third inning, respectively. They hit only three home runs in the series, two by Ortiz, the other by Crisp, who hadn't hit one in 54 games, but got a game-winning pinch hit from Varitek Thursday and Crisp's two-out single off Chad Bradford in the eighth yesterday.
"We feel lively and fresh," said Papelbon, who followed a perfect eighth-inning stint by Hideki Okajima, who had the previous three days off. "We've got a good feeling around this team right now."
Beckett, of course, is a big part of this era of good feeling. He gave up bases-empty home runs to Melvin Mora in the fourth and Nick Markakis in the sixth, but he was at his bulldog best with a runner on third and two outs in the seventh, striking out Roberts on a nasty changeup after the Orioles second baseman fouled off five straight fastballs, including one into the Sox dugout that nearly clocked Francona ("six inches from my temple"). He is now 18-6 overall, 10-2 with a 2.23 ERA on the road.
"Every time he pitches to us, he throws the same game," said Orioles cleanup man Miguel Tejada, who had five hits (all singles) in the first three games of the series but didn't get the ball out of the infield four trips yesterday. "He's been unbelievable this year. He was throwing the ball wherever he wants, today and every time he pitches against us.
"We were just happy to score two runs off him, and what can we do?"