Two games and two stirring Red Sox victories into this postseason, I've got one conclusion that I'm not going to hesitate to draw:
The Red Sox, winners of 97 games in the regular season, still have not peaked, a phenomenon that leaves them with as good a chance -- hell, go ahead and make it a better chance -- than any of the eight remaining teams to win the World Series.
They're the favorites, my friends. That's the truth. The Red Sox are the best team in baseball.
Maybe you recognized this some other night, one when Jonny Gomes punted beverages into the stands, or Jon Lester restored his ace status beyond all doubt, or Mike Napoli hit one to the moon, or any other of the countless memorable evenings during this redemptive season.
Maybe you saw it first. But it's never been more evident than it is right now. After dropping 19 runs in two games on a talented Rays pitching staff, including Saturday night's 7-4 victory to take a 2-0 lead in the series, they damn well should be.
They're a machine. A slugging, unified, relentless, efficient machine. A very possibly invincible machine. With a beard.
Spare me the nonsense about jinxes, about the five teams in ALCS history that have come back from 0-2 (the 1999 and '03 Sox among them), about counting victories before they've hatched. No one is doing that. If there's no respect for the Rays -- begrudging or otherwise -- you're missing the point.
The Sox aren't just steamrolling any old opponent -- they're steamrolling an outstanding team in its own right. Which makes what they are accomplishing and how they are accomplishing it all the more impressive. Just imagine what they'd be doing to the Indians.
The Rays are deep, talented, well-managed team that continually fought back and built suspense, even in defeat Saturday. They cut a Red Sox lead from 5-1 to 5-3 in the fifth inning on James Loney's two-run double. (Yes, that's the same James Loney who had a .310 slugging percentage for the Red Sox last year. He batted third Saturday night.)
An inning later, they cut the deficit to two again, 6-4, on a Yunel Escobar RBI single, forcing Red Sox manager John Farrell to go to the essential Craig Breslow for key outs in the sixth inning rather than in his usual domain of the seventh and eighth.
But fight as they may, they could not overcome the Sox. There were mild scares, semi-tense moments, in the middle and late innings. But Dustin Pedroia and Stephen Drew (admit it -- you see what I saw now) combined on crucial, fundamentally perfect 4-6-3 double plays in the seventh an eighth innings.
Then Koji Uehara came on for his special brand of electric efficiency in the ninth, retiring three batters on 11 pitches, all strikes. It's such a treat to watch him snuff out the drama. But his greatest feat of this evening? Getting the crowd to stop chanting "Myy-errrs" at beleaguered Rays rookie outfielder Wil Myers, changing their tune to "Ko-jiiiiii" as accompaniment to his beautiful music in the ninth.
It's almost as if the Red Sox are mocking any limits we put on our expectations at this point.
You don't think we can do what? Well, we'll show you. Wonder-beards, activate ...
Worried about facing Rays ace David Price, who had a 1.88 ERA and six wins in seven decisions at Fenway Park in his career? The Sox turned him into Joe Price, dropping nine hits and seven runs on him in seven innings, including a pair of homers by David Ortiz.
Ortiz, the appropriate final link to the '04 champs, is intent on seizing October yet again. He wrote the first word Saturday, giving the Sox a 2-0 lead with a homer over the Sox bullpen in the first, then added the punctuation with a solo shot in the eighth for the final 7-4 margin.
If you're surprised this was Ortiz's first multi-homer postseason game, raise your hand. We see you over there, Paul Quantrill. It seems like about his 10th.
Oh, and were you worried that the Red Sox had too many lefties in the lineup against Price, who held batters from that side of the plate to a .189/.227/.262 line this season?
How about this for a counter: Ortiz, Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury (three hits, three runs, a steal, and the kind of all-around game Scott Boras will put on his Why Jacoby Ellsbury Is Better Than Rickey Henderson Ever Was And I Mean It DVD) combined to go 6 for 11 with two homers, a double and a triple.
Price wasn't only done in by lefties; he was also done in by some of Fenway's -- and baseball's -- quirks.
David Ross hit a wall-scraper double in the third, then scored on an Ellsbury cue-shot into left, giving the Sox a 3-1 lead. It's the kind of stuff that sometimes leads a pitcher to suggest that Fenway should be the victim of ACME dynamite, and sooner rather than later.
John Lackey was once one of those pitchers, though his infamous anti-Fenway proclamation while with the Angels eventually was overcome by a change in luck here and 82.5 million reasons to call the place home.
Lackey was exceptional at Fenway this season -- 6-3 with a 2.47 ERA in his comeback season. He was more workmanlike Saturday, allowing seven hits and four earned runs in 5.1 innings. He did strike out six, including a huge whiff of Ben Zobrist with a runner on and the Sox up 5-3 in the fifth.
The bullpen picked him up with 3.2 innings of scoreless relief, and all the familiar songs played deep into the night at Fenway. Even Lackey nods to the words now: Boston, you're my home.
The first pitch hasn't been thrown in St. Petersburg yet, and already it feels like this series is over. Don't fight the feeling. There's no letdown on the horizon.
These Red Sox have a knack for defeating great pitchers and meeting great expectations all at once.
They proved it once again Saturday, taking the Rays' best shot, with their best pitcher on the mound, and emerging victorious.
Consider this a preemptive tip of the hat to everything that comes next.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.