Before the festivities began Tuesday night at a frigid Fenway Park, John Farrell talked about how his team’s improving health had finally afforded his lineup a continuity that had been missing for most of the opening month. Dustin Pedroia led off for a fifth straight game. Shane Victorino and David Ortiz followed next, as they have in all four games Victorino has played this season. And Mike Napoli batted cleanup for the 24th time in 27 tilts.
But the manager made note that while consistency may be most evident at the top of the Red Sox lineup, part of the benefit comes in the way it lengthens out the bottom of the order. “To me the overriding thing is the quality of at-bats up and down the lineup,” Farrell said. “That’s going to give us opportunities if we do find ourselves behind in games, to come back, to mount innings.”
And in the sixth inning, the bottom third of the Boston order offered a prime illustration of what their manager was describing.
It began with a man out and two on, with the game tied and with the Sox having already stranded five in support of another strong start from John Lackey. The rally had arisen out of the middle of the order, built on walks to Napoli and Jonny Gomes, but after Xander Bogaerts flew out to right, A.J. Pierzynski stepped in against Rays reliever Juan Carlos Oviedo.
The No. 7 hitter in the Boston lineup, Pierzynski fouled off the first pitch he saw, took the second for a ball, and then rifled a hard single into center field. With that, Napoli scored, and the Sox had a 2-1 lead. But they weren’t finished.
Will Middlebrooks followed Pierzynski’s single by crushing a line drive off the wall in left-center, plating Gomes, then Jackie Bradley Jr. subsequently drilled an 0-2 changeup to the base of the wall in center field. He traded places with Middlebrooks, who scored behind Pierzynski, and suddenly on the strength of the lower third of their lineup, the Sox had busted open a four-run advantage.
“Any time we can get production out of that bottom third, in addition to the way [Shane Victorino] swung the bat tonight [with four hits], it was good to see the evenness to the at-bats one through nine,” Farrell said after the game, which ended as a 7-4 win for his Red Sox.
Totaled up the bottom third went 5-for-11 with four runs scored, four runs batted in, three doubles and a walk – and for the third time in four games it was those three hitters whose heavy damage resulted in a Red Sox victory.
Friday in Toronto that trio was hitting in the same spots they were Tuesday, and combined for eight hits, five runs, four RBIs, and four doubles. The next day the order was altered slightly, but Pierzynski hit the grand slam that gave the Sox the lead for good, and Middlebrooks immediately followed with a solo blast.
Certainly there’s more variables than simply the addition of a single bat, but before the Sox activated Middlebrooks from the disabled list on Friday, Boston’s offense had scored more than six runs just once this season.
They’ve now done it in three of the four tilts since he returned.
“It gives us a better opportunity to win,” Bradley said of the top-to-bottom production. “I feel like any team that has their full arsenal, they’re going to put themselves in the best opportunity to win. When everybody is healthy and playing well, things go good.”
“The guys at the top of the lineup aren’t going to be able to do it every night, so we’re going to need guys to step up and have nights like that,” added Napoli. “We all know that they’re capable of doing what they’ve been doing lately, so when them guys get going down there it’s a huge plus.”
Entering this eight-game homestand, the Red Sox ranked in the middle of the pack among AL teams in terms of the production they’d been receiving from the bottom third of the order. Their batting average (.235) and OPS (.661) were just below the league average, while their on-base percentage (.321) was just above. They were mediocre, so those three spots weren’t necessarily hurting the Sox.
But they sure could help if nights like Tuesday become consistent occurrences.
“When we’re all working together like that — grinding out at-bats, getting on base, getting hits with guys in scoring position – that’s who we are,” Napoli said. “It’s a little taste of what we like to do, but we’ve got to stay consistent with it and keep it going.”