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Improved areas have surfaced

By Nick Cafardo
May 30, 2011

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DETROIT — Little by little, different areas are beginning to jell for the Red Sox.

In a 4-3 victory over the Tigers yesterday in the first game of a day-night doubleheader split, David Ortiz’s stroke returned to pre-2008 form as he hit a pinch homer in the ninth inning off Jose Valverde.

The Sox’ outfield defense was excellent, with Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury covering plenty of ground, getting to balls in the gaps very quickly and limiting extra-base hits.

And while we tend to dwell on the offense, the starting pitching has been excellent lately, and, in the end, the pitching will make or break this team.

Ortiz’s homer was not only dramatic, it was another sign that he has found himself. He started the game on the bench because young lefty Andy Oliver was on the mound and Kevin Youkilis got the nod as the designated hitter.

In a 3-3 game in the ninth, manager Terry Francona had the benefit of having both J.D. Drew and Ortiz available, so he used both. Drew hit for Mike Cameron and flied out and Ortiz hit for Jarrod Saltalamacchia and delivered his blast to right-center.

Ortiz has had more than his share of late-game heroics, although they have been less frequent over the past two years.

In his only other at-bat against Valverde, Ortiz had hit a grand slam, so the decision by Francona was sound in theory and in practice.

Ortiz delivered his fourth career pinch homer, the last coming April 27, 2003, in Anaheim against the Angels — which also happened to be his first of 302 homers with the Red Sox.

Ortiz hasn’t had to pinch hit very often being the primary DH for the Sox since 2003. When the Sox take on interleague rivals Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Houston on the road, Ortiz will have to get used to the role more.

Ortiz was asked whether he still takes ground balls at first base, and he responded, “I can’t even find my glove.’’

In spring training, Ortiz decided that with Adrian Gonzalez on the team there would be few chances for him to get in a game at first, and he’s probably right. Gonzalez likes to play every day, and it seems far-fetched that Francona might sit Gonzalez in favor of Ortiz even once or twice. Ortiz realizes his opportunities will come as a pinch hitter in those interleague situations.

“It’s pretty much what I do anyway,’’ Ortiz said. “I sit and then I come up and hit four times a game, so pinch hitting for me is no different than what I do. I know that I’m going to have to do more of it in those [interleague] games, and I just want to do the best I can when I have those opportunities.

“Today I was able to get my pitch to hit and I hit it a long way. That’s what I’d like to keep doing.’’

Ortiz was penciled in back at DH in the nightcap won by the Tigers, 3-0, and is hitting .300 with 11 homers and 24 RBIs. He has been the No. 5 hitter behind Youkilis most of the season. Because of that, his RBI opportunities have decreased a bit because Gonzalez and Youkilis often have cleaned up the bases ahead of him.

Ortiz admitted that he’s “trying to prove everybody wrong’’ about his decreased stature of the past couple of seasons, even though he was still right around the 30-homer, 100-RBI level.

What’s also important to him is to have his career continue into next season and beyond. Given the way he’s hitting lefthanded pitchers (a respectable .278), the way he’s hitting more to the opposite field, influenced by Gonzalez, and the way he’s been far more selective, Ortiz has become a significant hitter once again.

Crawford’s early hitting woes have been well-chronicled, and he seems to be overcoming them — although he went 0 for 7 in the doubleheader — but what’s impressed opponents and scouts of late is his defense in left.

“With Ellsbury and Crawford out there it’s amazing how many balls they get to that would go for extra-base hits,’’ said one scout.

Sox bench coach DeMarlo Hale has said, “It’s amazing to me how close [Crawford] can play to the line because he has the ability and the speed to get over to center so fast. It’s really impressive to watch. That allows Jacoby to shade over [to right], and his ability to go either way and get balls just gives us an aspect to our team defense that we’re excited about.’’

Tigers manager Jim Leyland made note of the outfield defense, and every scout who comes in to watch the Sox is amazed how good it is.

It doesn’t show up as much at Fenway Park, where the left-field wall limits the area that must be covered, but on the road there are definite benefits to having two outfielders who are so fast and who cover so much ground and a third, Drew, who is solid and has a decent arm in right.

The Sox are also becoming one of the better road teams in baseball. The Game 1 win made them 14-5 on the road since April 20, the best record in the majors over that span.

Much of that is because of the success of the starting staff. Until Clay Buchholz allowed three runs in Game 1, the Sox’ starters had allowed two runs or fewer in seven straight games. The starters had posted a 1.61 ERA over that seven-game run.

All of that with two key starters on the disabled list.

The one area that will be a work in progress is the bullpen, though the scoreless two-inning stint Matt Albers gave in Game 1 and the consistent job done by closer Jonathan Papelbon, who got the save, provide hope.

“Considering what they looked like at the start and what they look like now, they’re one of the most together teams in baseball right now,’’ said a National League special adviser. “They have so much talent and so many ways to withstand injuries. More than most teams. They’re really good right now.’’

Little by little, this team is starting to look pretty special.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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