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Red Sox 9, Orioles 3

Surging Red Sox entertain wild ideas

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / September 21, 2009

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BALTIMORE - In the Red Sox clubhouse late yesterday afternoon, the calisthenics of sweeping the Orioles over with, players packed their bags quickly. Even in their haste to make a flight to Kansas City, they noticed the images flashing on the monitor above David Ortiz’s locker.

The television showed the Mariners pummeling the Yankees, a result that would slash the Red Sox’ deficit in the American League East to five games.

“We haven’t really thought about the Yankees much,’’ Jason Bay said.

But what about now, with the wild card firm in their grasp and 14 games left? Could the Red Sox actually catch the Yankees? “Why not?’’ Ortiz said.

As Daisuke Matsuzaka submitted another strong start in his second game back from his three-month sabbatical, the Red Sox solidified their stranglehold on the wild card with a 9-3 dismissal of the Orioles before 27,546 at Camden Yards. The Rangers lost, increasing the Sox’ lead to eight games and cutting their magic number to seven.

The Red Sox having won 10 of their last 11 games, are 27-11 since Aug. 10, the best in the majors. Their streak and the Rangers’ slump has virtually sewn up the wild card, which may enable the Red Sox to shift their crosshairs to the Yankees - who would have clinched a playoff spot with a win.

“I don’t see Joba pumping his fist now,’’ another player shouted after Joba Chamberlain allowed a home run to Ken Griffey Jr.

The Sox placed their own game in the win column yesterday before the beer vendors sold out their first trays. They used three singles and a pair of walks to score three runs in the first, the key hit a bases-loaded, two-out, two-run single to left by Mike Lowell. The Sox scored in the first four innings - Jacoby Ellsbury drilled a two-run double to left-center in the third - and gave Matsuzaka a 7-0 lead.

Matsuzaka did not duplicate his stunning, dominant performance in his return, but in allowing three runs over 5 1/3 steady innings, he proved his durability. He threw 110 pitches, his highest total this season.

Matsuzaka allowed eight hits and walked one while striking out five. He pounded the zone, throwing 73 of his pitches for strikes. In his last start, Matsuzaka allowed three hits over six scoreless innings, a shocking performance at Fenway Park. His performance yesterday was not as arresting, but Matsuzaka found progress in it.

“Today was not as good as my last start,’’ Matsuzaka said through interpreter Masa Hoshino. “But I also feel that, gradually, my stuff is getting better. I think that the other good sign today was that I was able to throw over 100 pitches.’’

Matsuzaka’s last two starts each have been brisk, but it’s not because he is throwing more strikes. In his first eight starts, he threw 62.7 percent of his pitches for strikes. In his last two, it’s been 61.2 percent.

The difference is not in the location of his pitches, but the quality of them. Matsuzaka’s fastball yesterday had “good life,’’ manager Terry Francona said, even as his pitch count climbed into triple digits.

“Now he’s attacking,’’ Francona said. “It’s easy to tell somebody to throw over the strike zone. But when you’re getting whacked around, that doesn’t help, either.’’

When Matsuzaka retreated to Fort Myers, Fla., to strengthen his arm and salvage his season, the Sox wondered if he would pitch again this year. In two games, he has morphed into a starter they can trust in the postseason.

“Don’t forget, that man won 18 games for us,’’ catcher Jason Varitek said. “He’s been a huge part of our pitching staff. He’s still going through his adjustments to be playing right now, to be honest with you. It just adds us some more depth.’’

His arrival thickened the rotation, which is turning back into one of baseball’s best. Matsuzaka became the 13th consecutive Red Sox starter to allow three runs or fewer, the club’s longest such streak since 2001.

“It’s amazing how when pitching is consistent, how everything else seems to have a way of working,’’ Francona said.

The only unfortunate part of yesterday for the Sox was that they said goodbye to the Orioles, whom they outscored, 130-68, during the 16-2 season series. Now they head to Kansas City to play four games against another woebegone franchise.

Once they finish with the Royals, the Sox will conclude their trip at Yankee Stadium. The last time they were there, the Yankees swept them in a four-game series that portended doom.

“That feels like last year,’’ Bay said during the Sox’ last homestand.

The Sox long ago resigned themselves to the wild card. By next weekend, they could be rethinking that.

“You want to be that team that’s hot at the right time,’’ said Bay, who hit his 35th homer. “It’s not always the best team that wins. It’s the best team at the time. Right now, we’re on a pretty good roll.’’

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