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Red Sox 5, Blue Jays 1

Guiding light

Bay's early homer steers Sox to sweep

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 22, 2009
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Because of the lights in right field, Jason Bay couldn't see what happened to the ball he lofted in the direction of the Blue Jays' Alex Rios. He hadn't seen the ball barely miss the glove of Rios, smack the top of the bullpen wall, bounce among the Red Sox relievers, and into the stands. His confusion was evident on the replay, his lips mouthing words as he headed toward second.

"I think I had just rounded first, because it was hit fairly high, so I had time to get around first," Bay said. "I thought he had caught it. It was actually kind of the reaction of the crowd that let me know that it didn't [get caught]. I kind of mumbled to myself like, 'Oh, he didn't catch that.' Then I saw the umpire signal home run."

It was Bay's 11th straight homer with men on base, a club record, and making him a very popular teammate. Much nicer, as Bay acknowledged after the game, than hitting 15 solo homers out of his 31 in 2008. As he said, "That's why I flew out to first in my last at-bat," a bases-empty situation in the eighth. By then, though, the Sox were up by four in an eventual 5-1 victory that closed out a sweep of the formerly streaking Blue Jays.

That is no longer the case, thanks as much to Jon Lester and the rest of the Sox' starting pitching as Bay and the offense. As the Sox closed within a half-game of Toronto in the American League East, a pitching staff decried just a week ago as a shell of its promised self might just be on the mend (with an assist from pitching coach John Farrell).

"It's big," Lester said of the sweep. "It's big for not only us as a pitching staff, but I think as a team. A lot of hype was coming in. Obviously, we miss [Roy] Halladay, so that's a big blow for them. Everybody was talking up their pitching staff, and I think we did a pretty good job of seeing pitches and working them into bad situations."

Perhaps Lester's last start was the nadir. He allowed five runs against Seattle last Friday, leaving the Sox in another hole and the team's vaunted starting staff with a 5.96 ERA. Since then, and continuing with Lester's best start in a month, Sox starters have a 2.01 ERA.

"As far as our pitching staff, I think we stepped up and started going in the right direction," Lester said. "Coming out of spring training, if you had told me we were in this situation, I probably would have laughed at you. I think now we're going in the right direction, and if we get everybody going, it's going to be a good season."

Lester did his part last night, as 6 1/3 innings got the Sox to Ramon Ramirez and Jonathan Papelbon. There were moments of rockiness - he had just one clean inning - but much improvement. He allowed eight hits and one run, coming when Ramirez allowed his second inherited runner to score of the season. But after an RBI single by Aaron Hill greeted Ramirez, all the Blue Jays could muster was a walk and two singles over the final two-plus innings.

So Lester went from berating himself after his last start to measured praise with vows to continue to work hard.

"He set the bar so high and he was so good last year that what I don't want to do is start looking at the results before the process, because I think he has a tendency of doing that," manager Terry Francona said before the game. "He wants to be so good so bad right now he's almost like a hitter. He wants to go 3 for 1, and you can't do that."

His ERA was hardly going to become acceptable to him in one start. But sliding in at 5.91 was a step, one that should continue if Lester can continue to pitch to his talent.

"I think that this game isn't easy," Jason Varitek said. "I think it's just part of Jonny learning Jonny still. He wants to be great, and that's a good thing."

Add that desire to Daisuke Matsuzaka's return to the rotation today, and the news that John Smoltz performed well in his first rehab start with Single A Greenville, and there is room for cautious optimism on the mound. Cautious optimism at the plate, too. David Ortiz continued to sting the ball, with a hit and an RBI in four at-bats last night.

Ortiz knocked in Jacoby Ellsbury with the first run for the Sox, Bay coming through with Kevin Youkilis aboard with a walk. The Sox added a run in the third, Dustin Pedroia (double) scoring on a Youkilis single. In the fifth, Pedroia's single drove home Ellsbury, who extended his hitting streak to 16 games.

As for Bay, the slugger seems to be able to do everything, now on pace for 51 home runs. And though he needed aid from the 38,347 at Fenway Park to confirm that No. 13 was in the bank, it counted just the same.

"I'm one of those guys, the more I try to hit the ball the other way, it's not really conducive," Bay said. "It's something that just happens. Like home runs, I always say I'm not trying to do it. So, it's a part of my game. It's just sometimes when I focus too much on it, it really takes me out of how comfortable I am sometimes in my approach. I end up kind of aiming the ball over there and slapping it, rather than just letting it travel and hitting it."

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

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