Red Sox simply superior
Late explosion covers for struggling Lester
BALTIMORE - The differences between the Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, a team surging toward the playoffs and a team sinking into the drudgery of meaningless September baseball, injected a sense of inevitability into their mismatch last night.
The Orioles took two leads in the first four innings, robbed Jon Lester of his invincibility, and watched their starter pitch six worthy innings. But in the seventh inning, when Dustin Pedroia led off with a single against reliever Matt Albers, could there have been any doubt, in either dugout, which team was going to win?
The Red Sox turned a taut, tied game into an 11-5 thumping of the Orioles before 39,285 at Camden Yards. If and when the Red Sox clinch the American League wild card, they may want to consider sending Thank You notes to the brick warehouse on Eutaw Street. The Sox are 15-2 against the Orioles this year, having thumped them by an aggregate score of 121-65.
The Sox surged to their latest laugher with three runs in the seventh and five in the eighth, overcoming a start in which Lester swapped his typical dominance for survival and gritted through six-plus innings. J.D. Drew went 3 for 5 with his 21st home run and four RBIs, David Ortiz went 2 for 4 with a pair of doubles, and Mike Lowell went 3 for 4 with two RBIs.
The Sox reduced their magic number to 9 and, as the Rangers also won, maintained a seven-game lead in the wild-card race. The Sox have won eight of nine, a stretch in which they’ve all but secured a spot in the postseason.
“More than anything, we’re starting to play good baseball,’’ Lester said. “We’re starting to get results. I guess you could say we’ve had a lot of ups and downs. We’ve had a ton of injuries. But it seems like now, balls that need to fall are falling and guys are driving the ball out of the ballpark when we need it. Hopefully we can keep going in this direction.’’
The Red Sox mounted the winning rally in the seventh inning, immediately after starter David Hernandez yielded to Albers. Pedroia led off with a sharp single to left. After timing Albers’s delivery for two pitches, Pedroia swiped second. He moved to third when Victor Martinez - who in the first inning extended his career-high hitting streak to 18 games - grounded to second.
And then the Red Sox asserted their superiority. Kevin Youkilis singled, Ortiz doubled off Alberto Castillo, J.D. Drew dumped a single into center, and Mike Lowell roped a single. After Cla Meredith entered and closed out the inning for Baltimore, the damage could be surveyed: three pitchers, five hits, three runs, almost certainly another victory for the Red Sox.
While their offense overwhelmed the Orioles in the final innings, a defensive play by Alex Gonzalez set up the rally. After Lester allowed a leadoff single in the seventh, Billy Wagner entered. With one out, Cesar Izturis ripped a ground ball toward the hole on the left side.
In early August, languishing with the Reds, Gonzalez was starting to think about returning home to Miami for the offseason. Then he got a call from his agent, asking if he’d accept a trade to the Red Sox.
“You never know where you’ll be tomorrow,’’ said Gonzalez. “For any player, you want to be in the postseason. If I stayed in Cincinnati, I’d be counting the days.’’
Instead, he was in Baltimore last night. Gonzalez jabbed over two steps and slid feetfirst at the ball, which allowed him to field the ball on a backhand, pop up, and rifle the ball to Pedroia in one balletic motion. Pedroia relayed the ball to first, and Wagner pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.
“He gets me the ball so quick,’’ Pedroia said. “It makes my job a lot easier. He’s really fun to play with.’’
“It wasn’t easy,’’ Gonzalez said. “It’s reaction. You anticipate the play - what’s it going to be? Just be ready.’’
The Red Sox needed their outburst despite Lester starting. He tied a season high by allowing 10 hits, allowing a single to the only batter he faced in the seventh inning.
Over the past three months, Lester had been the best lefthanded pitcher in baseball, maybe the best pitcher, period. Lester had not allowed more than eight hits in a game since May 9, when he allowed 10 in his seventh start of the season.
Last night, the Orioles battered their ninth hit, a single by Felix Pie, with two outs in the sixth inning. Lester entered with a 3-0 record and a 0.84 ERA against the Orioles this season, but Brian Roberts led off with a double and, though Lester gutted through six innings, they never relented.
Roberts scored in the first when Matt Wieters singled, snapping Lester’s 17-inning scoreless streak. Ty Wigginton and Melvin Mora hit leadoff home runs in the second and fourth innings - Lester was tagged for multiple home runs for the first time since June 18. The Orioles managed at least one hit every inning against Lester.
“It’s just one of those nights you have to buckle down and battle,’’ Lester said. “We won. I look at it that way. It wasn’t my best, but I kept my team in the ballgame.’’
Against the Orioles, Lester should have known that would suffice.
Adam Kilgore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.