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No question, Red Sox on roll

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By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / April 23, 2009
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The pitchers weren't pitching. The hitters weren't hitting. Three series into the season, the Red Sox had sunk into last place in a division they were supposed to win - or at least contend for - as the first road trip of the year ground to an end. Then Tim Wakefield nearly brought magic to Oakland, and since, the Sox have done almost nothing wrong.

The pitchers have pitched. The hitters have hit. And how.

Behind a second straight complete game by Wakefield (in a rain-shortened seven innings) and a lively offense in which seemingly no one is struggling, the Sox smashed through the Twins in a one-day, two-game series sweep that gave manager Terry Francona a nice 50th birthday present to take into today's day off. It was a 10-1 win in Game 1, a 7-3 win in Game 2, and a seven-game winning streak, all with the Yankees coming to visit tomorrow.

Those worries about the Sox? They are quickly dissipating.

"That's Boston, you know," David Ortiz said. "People panic too easy here. I've been here seven years and the years that we struggled the most we won the World Series, and then there's some other years that everything's looking good and then injuries happen."

So why has the offense picked up now? "Because we've got good hitters," Ortiz said. "Good hitters [are] always going to hit. No matter what. I don't care what anybody has to say. Good hitters are always going to hit."

And good pitchers? They help a bit, too.

"We're playing good ball," Kevin Youkilis said. "We're pitching well. We're hitting well. If your pitching holds the opposition down, I think that's our biggest key: pitching and defense.

"That's going to take us a long way."

So to all those who questioned the Red Sox' decision to bring back Wakefield for a 15th season, the knuckleballer answered again in the first game of the doubleheader. His success might not last beyond his next start. It might last all season. But over his last two starts, he has quelled the skepticism over the decision to put him back in a rotation that looked stacked before the season.

Seven no-hit innings? Done. A five-hit, one-run, seven-inning start? Done. Two straight complete games? Done and done.

With 18 innings on the docket, pitching coach John Farrell had emphasized the night before just how important it was for Wakefield to pitch deep into Game 1. And so he did.

"I was excited to pitch today," said Wakefield, the oldest pitcher (at 42 years, 263 days) to throw two consecutive complete games since Charlie Hough (44 years, 169 days) in 1992, and the first Sox pitcher to do so since he did it in 2005. "I really felt good in Oakland, took a no-hitter into the eighth. I just carried that confidence and momentum that I had after that game into today's game, so I feel like my checkpoints and my mechanics are coming together. Throwing a lot of strikes, mixing in my pitches when I need to."

The starting pitching also is displaying the form expected at the beginning of the season. Six of the seven wins on the current streak have gone to starters, including Brad Penny in Game 2. Though Penny might not have wowed in the same way Wakefield did, he turned in a solid six innings in which he gave up two earned runs and six hits.

Francona praised his fastball command and the use of his breaking ball.

And though the offense wasn't nearly as overwhelming in Game 2 (five hits) as it was in Game 1 (14 hits), it was efficient. The Sox scored all seven runs in the nightcap in the first four innings against starter Francisco Liriano, the big blast a three-run homer into the Monster seats by Jeff Bailey in his first at-bat of the season. Three two-run homers in the first three innings of Game 1 - by Youkilis, Nick Green, and Mike Lowell - gave the Sox all they needed.

But that game had an odd ending, too, because there could have been more. The Sox had four runs in and two players in scoring position with one out in the seventh with Jacoby Ellsbury at bat when the game went into a rain delay. So with a second game on tap, the opener was called after a 1-hour-25-minute delay. Not exactly the norm. (The second game was delayed 47 minutes at the start.)

"It is unique," Francona said. "I don't think I've ever had this. I mistakenly was under the impression that you had to finish the first one before you could try to start the second one, and that's not the case."

As the first game began, fans barely filled one in every three seats at Fenway Park. It was a late-arriving crowd. And an early-departing one. Even those hardy fans who stuck it out through nearly 25 minutes of rain headed for the exits when the tarp was first placed on the field at 2:45 p.m.

The Sox had already taken advantage of Twins starter Scott Baker and Wakefield was able to take some liberties. He got strikeouts on a fastball and a curveball, and said, "I was able to pitch to the scoreboard, so to speak. [The offense] made my job a lot easier today."

The Sox started the seventh with a near homer by Ortiz, then followed with three consecutive walks, an RBI single by Lowell, a sacrifice fly by George Kottaras, and then a two-run double by Green that stood as the final play of the game.

The Sox have scored 55 runs during their seven-game win streak, and 29 over the last three games.

That left Ortiz - who had three hits in two games yesterday, all going to left field - with a message for those who weren't sure about him or the Sox' offense during the slow start.

"Things are going good around here," he said. "That's the way we want to keep it. Tell the people to stop panicking."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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