Red Sox get Yanked down a notch

BOSTON -- Well now, look who sneaked into first place while nobody was looking. Granted, it's by a mere six-tenths of a percentage point over the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, making it a virtual tie, but if you really want to get technical about it, for the first time in 2013 the New York Yankees are alone at the top of the American League East.

The same aging, beat-up Jeter-less Yankees who were given about as much chance in March to win the division as a disgraced Mark Sanford was given to win a seat in Congress in South Carolina. But holy Wolf Blitzer, the Bombers, like Sanford, are back. Which means, given the logic that has gained some traction around here this week, the Yankees should be subjected to the same kind of interrogation that David Ortiz was regarding his hot start, mere ability evidently having lost all credibility in 2013.

Explain yourselves, damn it, Yankees, who might actually be ahead of schedule compared to recent years. The Yanks took over first place to stay last season on June 11. The year before that, Sept. 2. They finished second in 2010, but claimed first place for good in 2009 on July 20.

Still, a bit early to concede, wouldn't you agree -- the Red Sox having occupied a share of first place every day since the season began on April 1? Six losses in seven games, including Thursday night's 5-3 loss to the Minnesota Twins in the Fens, has made for a bit of a market correction. The bullpen has taken a hit, with the losses of closers Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan; the starters had a shaky turn through the rotation; and the offense has been sporadic.

But it's no more indicative of a free fall than the fact that Ortiz, who until Tuesday night was immersed in the longest hitting streak of his career, has had back-to-back 0-for-5 games since Dan Shaughnessy's people-suspect-it's-steroids column in the Boston Globe.

The premise of that column revolved around the notion that Ortiz was defying age by his sensational start, which automatically draws suspicion in these chemically enhanced times. But no one could have anticipated the true turn-back-the-clock nature of the back-to-back 0-for-5s.

You have to go back to 2004, when Ortiz was a prime-time 28, to find the last time Ortiz had consecutive 0-for-5 nights. Aug. 20 and 21, to be exact, and it was probably overlooked, given the Sox scored 10 runs in each of those games in beating the White Sox.

Not so easy to skip this time when they both occurred in losses, Ortiz coming to the plate with a combined 10 men on base over the past two nights and scoring none of them. He was not alone in not being able to deliver a big hit Thursday, when the Sox placed runners on base in all nine innings but brought home just three of them while stranding 10. Just in the ninth inning Thursday, after a leadoff walk to Jacoby Ellsbury, both Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia took disputed called third strikes from Twins closer Glen Perkins before Ortiz grounded out to end it.

After the first 0-for-5, Ortiz tweeted: "End of my hitting streak tonight the season stil going and I hope Dan shaugnessy is a happy man now... Not more 426 enjoy it."

The "426" was a reference to the .426 he was batting entering play on Tuesday. The average is down to .353 after Thursday's game.

Asked Thursday night whether all the steroid talk had proven a distraction, Ortiz said: "Not anymore. I'm a new guy. What can you do about it?

"Keep banging. Just keep banging."

In Boston's 15-8 loss to the Twins on Wednesday night, Ortiz failed to get the ball out of the infield, striking out twice and grounding out weakly in his other three at-bats.

Thursday night, he squared up three balls, scalding a liner that Twins first baseman Justin Morneau knocked down in the fifth before stepping on the bag, lining to center in the seventh, then grounding sharply to Morneau to end the game.

Ortiz somehow made the final out in all five innings in which he batted Thursday, but at least took a measure of satisfaction in the contact.

"All you really want to do is make sure you put a good swing on the ball," he said. "After that the baseball gods take over, know what I'm saying? But that first one, I hit a ball, that ball found Morneau. The ball caught him.

"Put a good swing on it, but right at people. That's baseball. Try tomorrow. Same approach, same swing, different direction."

The Red Sox, based on preseason projections, were as unlikely occupants of first place for the season's first five weeks as the Yankees are now, for however long that might last. On so many levels, the Red Sox did the things Thursday night that often result in victory. John Lackey gave the Sox seven strong innings, allowing just one earned run while striking out eight. Koji Uehara came out of the bullpen to strike out the side in the eighth. Craig Breslow got three ground-ball outs in the ninth.

Ortiz and catcher David Ross were the only Sox starters not to reach base. Victorino, Pedroia and Daniel Nava had two hits apiece. Mike Napoli had another double.

But during stretches like these, losses can find you, just like Ortiz's ball found Morneau. Lackey had a 2-1 lead in the sixth when he threw a double-play grounder into center field with two runners on. The tying run scored on the play, and one batter later, Morneau scored on a sacrifice fly, Ross missing with his swipe tag after Victorino's strong throw beat Morneau to the plate. The next batter, Oswaldo Arcia, hit Lackey's next pitch into the Sox bullpen for a two-run homer.

"Felt really good, locating well, had really good stuff," Lackey said. "One play ruined it all."

Ruined the night, not the season. Three teams bunched at the top, the Rays lurking within striking distance, the Jays, who come in next, with plenty of time to right their terrible start. And maybe the forecasters got this one right: The division will be too close to call all summer.

"I don't think anybody is worrying about the last seven games," Pedroia said. "We just have to come out hard, keep trying to win."

Keep banging, indeed.