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Grinding away, and feeling right at home

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 5, 2009 06:50 AM

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Two weeks ago, as the Toronto Blue Jays took batting practice before a game at Fenway Park, a longtime American League evaluator took stock. The Blue Jays had some talent, he said. But what they lacked was the competitiveness, drive, and self-assurance that the Red Sox have worked so hard to establish.

Then the Jays went out and got swept.

And so, as the Red Sox return home tonight following a 6-4 road trip that ended with a wipeout of the Detroit Tigers, let the most recent events serve as a reminder: For all of the talent the Red Sox have featured in recent years, they have demonstrated a commendable resiliency, too. The Red Sox are on pace for 96 victories this season, but the truth is that they have not yet come close to playing their best baseball. Overall, while the early stages of this Sox season have resulted in as many questions as answers, the Sox have continued to plod along, aimed at October, typically unwilling to make excuses or alibis.

"We haven't been playing very well on the road,'’ Tim Wakefield told reporters following yesterday’s 6-3 win. "To come away 6-4 on this road trip -- it's been a long one. To win three against the first-place team in the Central is huge."

Especially when there is that sense that things might be starting to come apart a little.

We all know how this works. In many ways, football, basketball, and hockey are physically more demanding sports than baseball, but none of them can break you down mentally quite like baseball can. Try doing the same thing for 20 days in a row and see how you feel. Then take a day off and go for another 14 days. Then take another day off and go for another 10. Along the way, when things don’t go right, we’re willing to bet you’ll be slamming doors and kicking over trash cans for the simple fact that you need a break.

The Red Sox? Somehow, some way, they find ways to keep winning games. David Ortiz is so mixed up that he can’t see straight -- he is now planning to get his eyes checked -- and the starting rotation was a mess for the first six weeks of the season. Every ground ball hit to shortstop has been like a ride at Disney. Kevin Youkilis went on the disabled list. Jonathan Papelbon hasn’t looked remotely like himself. The Red Sox have averaged nearly two more runs per game at home (6.30, first in the majors) than on the road (4.61, 13th).

Do not underestimate the importance of the series sweep at Detroit. As Red Sox manager Terry Francona indicated when the Sox left Toronto last weekend, the numbers are all starting to mean something now. The Tigers are a first-place team -- regardless of their division -- and they ranked among the top of the AL in pitching since the year began. The Sox subsequently stole the series opener before riding Josh Beckett to a victory in Game 2, then let the Tigers (specifically Dontrelle Willis) spit up on themselves in yesterday’s finale.

Of course, that kind of formula is entirely consistent with how the Sox have done things over the last several years. In 2007, when the Sox systematically marched through the regular season behind a dominating bullpen, Francona made an observation that went something like this: If you win the games you should and a few of the ones you shouldn’t, you should be OK. By that, Francona did not mean that the Red Sox should beat up on weak teams so much as they should close out games in which they have late leads, something at which the club has become extremely proficient.

For example: With yesterday’s win, the Sox are now 25-1 when leading after six innings. Their only loss came on May 23, when New York Mets catcher Omir Santos all but closed his eyes and homered off Papelbon in the top of the ninth. The Sox’ only other memorable slip-up came in Seattle earlier last month, when Nick Green’s throwing error contributed mightily to a Red Sox loss.

Games like that are acceptable so long as they remain aberrational. Once they become a pattern -- and, thus, the sign of a bigger problem -- it’s time to worry.

On the flip side, the Sox stole a few games early in the year, too. During one stretch, while their starting pitchers were playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, the Sox overcame deficits of 7-0 (against the Orioles), 6-0 (against the Yankees), and 5-0 (against the Indians) to prevail. In retrospect, those games were not nearly the fluke that the Sox’ late-inning failures were, if only for the fact that the Red Sox generally have a better lineup than their opposition to go along with a better bullpen.

You see? They win the games they should -- and a few of the ones they shouldn’t.

There has been luck involved, too. The Sox have played the Jays in two series this year and missed Roy Halladay both times. With the Detroit Tigers, they somehow managed to dodge reigning AL Pitcher of the Month Justin Verlander and the budding Edwin Jackson. At the same time, as usual, the Sox exploited every advantage they got.

Entering tonight’s game at Fenway, the Sox have played fewer home games than any team in the American League. They possess the best home winning percentage in the AL. Boston will play 12 of its next 15 games in the angular confines of Fenway Park, where they have posted the best home record (334-175, a .656 winning percentage) in baseball during the Theo Epstein era. The starting pitching seems to have come together. A new batting order seems to be working. The Sox were 2-4 on their recent road trip before grinding their way to a 6-4 mark, only fortifying a reputation that has been built over the last several years.

If you want to win in Boston, you have to beat the Red Sox.

After all, regardless of how well or poorly they are playing, the Red Sox are not simply going to give it to you.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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