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Dan Shaughnessy

Finally, team hits its mark

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / May 16, 2011

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NEW YORK — Finally .500.

We are one-quarter of the way through the season and The Best Team Ever has won as many games as it has lost. In the wake of last night’s 7-5 win over the Yankees and a three-game sweep in the Bronx, the Red Sox return home tonight with the clear-vision record of 20-20. First time all season.

A .500 record is the line of demarcation, separating success and failure. If you play .500 ball you are at 98.6 Fahrenheit. Not too high, not too low. Perfectly normal.

In 1967, a rookie Sox manager named Dick Williams boldly predicted, “We’ll win more than we lose.’’ Numbed by ninth-place finishes and 100 losses (1965), Sox fans were positively gobsmacked at the notion of the local nine playing above .500.

Things are different now. The goals are loftier. The Red Sox have qualified for the postseason in six of the last eight years, and haven’t lost more than they’ve won since Jimy Williams managed the Mudvilles in 1997. Playing .500 ball is not OK anymore. It’s like applying to Harvard with a C average. It’s just not going to cut it.

“If we get excited about that [reaching .500], our heads are in the wrong place,’’ said shortstop Jed Lowrie. “There’s 122 games left. We’re not a .500 ball club. We just have to keep our heads down and keep winning.’’

The 2011 Sox have the second-highest payroll in baseball, were universally picked to finish first, and had players in spring training talking about winning 100 games. A Hub tabloid declared them “Best Team Ever.’’

So there’ll be no Duck Boat parade for playing .500 ball, thank you. But after an 0-6 and 2-10 start, the Sox are finally happy to break even. No Forever .500 Whalers here, the Sox had not been 50/50 since they were 0-0 April Fool’s Day in Arlington, Texas.

“Actually, it feels good,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “It’s not really what our goal is, but we’re making strides. We’re coming. We’re getting better.’’

Last night marked the Sox’ fourth try to vault into the pit of mediocrity. They were 10-11 when they played Baltimore at Fenway April 26. They lost, 4-1. They were 14-15 when they played the Angels at Fenway May 4. That was the hideous overnight, million-hour loss in 13 innings. They were 17-18 when they played at Toronto last week. They lost, 7-6.

It seemed the only thing that could stop them last night was the Reverse Lock Theory. The Sox had everything going for them. They’d won the first two games of the series and they had Smilin’ Jon Lester on the hill. The Yankees were still reeling from the Jorge Posada Adventure, and had lost four straight while batting .128 with runners in scoring position. New York had retread righty Freddy Garcia on the mound. The Sox kill righties and the Yankee Stadium footprint always favors the team that has a lefty on the mound.

With all that going for them, the Sox fell behind, 4-1, in the second. Lester surrendered a run on two hits and a hit batsman in the first, then coughed up a couple of homers (Andruw Jones, Curtis Granderson) in the second.

Kevin Youkilis tied it with a three-run blast in the third. It was one terrific at-bat by Youk. He fell behind, 0-and-2, worked the count full, fouled off a 3-and-2 pitch, then unloaded on Garcia.

“One really good swing gets us right back in the game,’’ said Francona.

David Ortiz plopped a go-ahead homer into the seats just inside the right-field foul pole in the fifth to give Lester a 5-4 lead. Boston’s sixth run came courtesy of a Bill Buckner-esque error by slumping Alex Rodriguez in the seventh. Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s first homer in two years, in the eighth, gave Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon a little cushion.

Obviously, the Sox had hoped to be better than .500 at this juncture. Playing .500 ball is no longer acceptable at Fenway. The last perfectly symmetrical (81-81) Boston baseball team was the 1985 edition, an average white band managed by John McNamara. Now .500 represents a starting point.

“I can’t say it really matters where our standings are now,’’ said Lester. “Yeah, it’s a big step, but we have a ways to go. We dug ourselves a hole. This is the reason why we play 162.’’

They come home tonight for a seven-game stand, two with the Orioles, two with the white-hot Tigers, and three with the Cubs, who have not played in Fenway since the 1918 World Series. Daisuke Matsuzaka goes tonight and John Lackey tomorrow. Gulp.

It certainly looks like 100 wins is out of the question. Right now, a couple of games over .500 would look pretty good.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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