On the growl
Beckett wins 14th as Sox drop Tigers
For months now, the agony has outweighed that long-ago memory of the ecstasy. It has been strikeouts, and fly balls, and ground outs. Hits have been few. Home runs and RBIs have been fewer. And just when Jason Bay began to feel right, the bat making contact in just the right manner with just the right sound and just the right result, Bay found himself cramping up and out of the lineup for three of the most important games of the season.
He crept back to Fenway Park, no longer wounded in body, though his spirits still lagged. Something had switched on against Tampa Bay, on that home run that came a week ago, and that switch has remained on since. Through his injury timeout, Bay maintained his sense of rightness at the plate, and has simply taken off.
Not only did Bay reach base in all five of his plate appearances last night, but he added a home run and two doubles to his season tally. He recorded the winning runs when he sent Dustin Pedroia home ahead of him on a third-inning homer, and he started a five-run fifth inning with his first double, as the Sox took down the Tigers, 8-2, for their third straight win.
“It’s only been three games, but I feel a lot better,’’ Bay said. “I’m feeling much more comfortable in the box. When you’re not comfortable, you’re searching. You’re trying to move your feet a little bit, you’re trying this, trying that. You’re trying to find the magical little tweak, because most of the time it’s nothing major. You’re trying to find that one little thing that keys it off for you. Sometimes you start using those too much as an excuse: I’m trying this or that, rather than just hitting the ball.’’
So he has stopped trying. Or at least stopped trying too hard, a fact appreciated by the 38,124 in attendance at Fenway Park last night. They - along with the attendees at the two games prior - have been the recipients of Bay’s run of good offense, with homers in each of those three games, and in four of his last five. He hadn’t homered in 20 straight before that. Over his last seven games, Bay is 10 for 23 (.435) with four homers, six runs, and seven RBIs.
That offense has been mirrored by Mike Lowell, who will have to continue his run amid a greater reliance on him. With Kevin Youkilis shelved for four more games because of his suspension, Lowell is in prime position to boost the Sox, which he has done to the tune of .393 since returning from the disabled list July 17.
Following that trend, Lowell got the scoring started with a second-inning leadoff homer over the Green Monster for his third homer in his last four at-bats.
“Mikey Lowell’s - with some intermittent starts - really swung the bat well,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “Jason Bay looks like he’s trying to get hot again. That’s very welcome. When Jason gets hot, as you can see, it’s not just singles. He starts driving the ball out of the ballpark.
“What a different team we look like.’’
The Sox’ offensive burst bolstered the efforts of Josh Beckett as he became the majors’ first 14-game winner this season. Beckett, undefeated at home all season, improved to 6-0 with a 1.20 ERA in his last seven home starts. Overall, he has also held opponents to three or fewer runs in 15 of his last 18 games, going 12-2 with a 2.17 ERA and 114 strikeouts (and just 26 walks). He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 24 batters, a statistic that Francona made sure to reference after the game.
“The score makes it sound a lot worse than it actually was,’’ said Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson. “If we didn’t have that bad inning with all those long at-bats, it wouldn’t have looked so bad. But it’s going to read and look like [Beckett] pitched a great game - which he did. I’ve got to give credit where credit is due.’’
The offense deserved some credit, too. The Sox were up, 3-1, with two outs in the fifth when they knocked out replacement starter Zach Miner and then roughed up his replacement, Freddy Dolsi, for five runs.
Key among the four hits, two walks, and one error in the frame, however, was Lowell’s ability to make it to first base on an infield single with men on first and third. Had he not hustled (as much as he could) through those 90 feet, the inning would have been over. Instead, the ball ended up in no-man’s land beyond the mound and Lowell ended up on first.
“That ended up being a huge swing in the game,’’ Francona said, before chuckling. “It’s [3-1] and that would have been the third out, and we extended the inning after that. That was everything he had.’’
But it was Bay who seems to be taking off - finally.
There was that home run in St. Petersburg, Fla., an at-bat in which he said he felt “uninhibited. I didn’t force anything. I wasn’t trying to make something happen. I saw the ball.’’
He had lost the feel, and then got it back again. It had been an extremely difficult couple of months, in which he sunk to depths previously unexplored.
Though Bay’s not willing to declare himself as hot as he was to begin the season, he’s thrilled to be done with a two-month-plus stretch in which he batted just .217 for 67 games. It was a period in which he had 72 strikeouts and only 53 hits. His batting average dipped to .250..
As he said, “I didn’t want to be that mopey teammate. You try to be the same guy every time. Easier said than done. Then you hope you can turn it around. There’s still lots of time left.’’
So with Bay on and Lowell on, the Sox are hoping that they won’t go back to the horrific offense of the past road trip, instead staying with an offense that has produced at least six runs in each of the last three games - all wins.
“If I had a better explanation, it wouldn’t have happened,’’ Francona said. “Sometimes this game can confound you a little bit. But again the important thing is that we are taking better swings, and again I know the guy we’re facing [this afternoon, Justin Verlander] is going to have a lot to say if we continue, but it’s certainly a better feeling.’’
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.