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BOSTON -- Well, now that the Red Sox are hitting again, what better time to visit the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners -- whose pitching staffs rank 1-2 in the American League in earned run average -- followed by a visit to New York and Masahiro Tanaka?
That's the most favorable way to spin the back-to-back, 10th-inning home runs by David Ortiz and Mike Napoli on Wednesday afternoon that lifted the Sox to a 2-1, walk-off win, and three-game sweep, of the Minnesota Twins.
|Mike Napoli celebrates his walk-off blast after David Ortiz's tying homer in the 10th.|
"For our two big guys to hit a couple of dingers late like that, hopefully it will give us some momentum heading into the road trip," said pitcher John Lackey, who was immense for nine scoreless innings Wednesday afternoon, limiting the Twins to three hits and a walk while striking out nine.
And, sure, a Sox fan would love to believe that will be the case, but a mountain of evidence is accumulating that this season is unlike few witnessed in these parts in a very long time. No one is prepared yet to anoint them the Hitless Wonders, but these Sox bear scant resemblance to the bashers who propelled them to three World Series titles in the past 10 years.
Hitting again? The Sox had one hit through nine innings Wednesday, Daniel Nava's fifth-inning, ground-rule double off right-hander Kyle Gibson, who on this day offered a reasonable facsimile to Bob Gibson. They have now gone five straight games scoring two runs or fewer, all at Fenway Park. That's happened just five times in their history at home, the last in 1973. Sox pitchers have been so good that they've managed to win three of them of the five and held the Twins to a grand total of two runs in three games.
"Here's the thing," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "We swept 'em and outscored 'em 5-2 [combined in the three games], whatever it was."
Until this week, the Sox had never won a three-game set -- home or away -- in which they'd scored just five runs, according to data from the Elias Sports Bureau.
"I'm just worried about winning any way we can," said Napoli, who launched an 0-and-2 fastball from Twins reliever Casey Fien onto the tarp in dead center field. "It was a good win for us, and we'll try to keep it going."
Napoli shook his head when asked if he could remember the last player to hit a walk-off home run for the Sox. When someone pointed at him, his memory instantly improved.
"Center field. Yankees. Now I do. Thanks," said Napoli, rattling off the particulars of the walk-off he hit against New York last July 21, when he hit one off Adam Warren that landed in the same vicinity as his drive off Fien.
Fien was pitching because Twins closer Glen Perkins reported some lower-back stiffness Wednesday morning. He'd gotten two strikes on Ortiz, too, before Ortiz lashed a cutter into the right-field grandstand near the foul pole.
"He's a veteran hitter," Fien said. "He fought away the good pitches I threw and then he took advantage of the one mistake I left up and in."
There was an "oops" attached to the 0-and-2 pitch to Napoli, too.
"I was trying to throw a ball there, but I guess I caught too much of the plate, and he took advantage of that mistake, too," Fien said.
Until the home runs, the Sox came perilously close to losing the series finale, as Koji Uehara, who had not been scored upon in his past 21 innings and had retired 17 batters in a row, was done in by Chris Parmelee, who hit one into the Sox bullpen just out of reach of apprentice outfielder Brock Holt.
Parmelee had beaten the Sox with a walk-off home run off Andrew Miller back in Minnesota on May 13. But then, the late thunder rolled in, and Napoli was the one firing his helmet into a cluster of waiting celebrants.
|Jonny Gomes, right, and the Sox make way at home plate for walk-off hero Mike Napoli.|
"I saw Jonny [Gomes] there," Napoli said of pitching his hardhat. "Of course, he blocked it from going through."
The dramatic denouement was welcome by all in home whites, of course, but still, it begged the question, Whatever happened to the days when the Sox would routinely score five or six runs a night, especially here?
The Sox averaged 3.86 runs per game in their first 72 games. Only five times in their history have they averaged fewer. Two were war years (1943 and 1945), one was 1968 -- when the entire big leagues went into a collective slump, prompting a lowering of the mound -- one was in 1932, when the Sox lost 111 games and one was in 1992, when they finished last.
Their two home runs in the 10th matched their total number of home runs they'd hit in the previous nine games. They're on a pace to hit 50 home runs in Fenway this season; only five years ago, the 2009 team went deep there 114 times.
They're on a pace to score 306 runs at home, their fewest since 1945, and 309 on the road.
So, what happened?
"Pitchers have families to support, families to feed," said Ortiz, in considerably better spirits than he had been in the seventh inning, when he raged at the press box after the official scorer ruled an error instead of awarding him a hit on a smash to Twins first baseman Joe Mauer.
Ortiz has not been immune from the same issues affecting everyone, with the possible exception of Holt, though even the hot-swinging rookie took an 0-for-4 Wednesday. Ortiz is batting .246, the lowest his average has been this deep into a season since 2009.
"I'm not saying that's the reason why we've been having a tough time hitting," Ortiz said, referring back to his little joke. "Hopefully, things will change. We've been facing good pitching. In my case, just going to keep on swinging. Nothing going to keep that away from me. Things are not happening, but we'll keep fighting through it."
Both Napoli and Pierzynski were similarly inclined to give the opposing pitchers some credit, Pierzynski noting that Gibson had come into the game with a 15-inning scoreless streak. And Sox pitching has been otherworldly; it allowed just 13 runs in the seven-game homestand, the fewest since the '78 Sox, in desperate straits, allowed just eight in seven games of the final homestand of the season to set up the Bucky Dent playoff game.
"I will say that the guys that walk to the mound, they know that their execution and consistency is key, is critical," manager John Farrell said. "One-run games, we're not trying to go out there by design. We're grinding away as best we can."
The past five Sox games have been decided by a run, adding to their AL-leading total of 26 one-run games, in which they have an 11-15 record. Now comes the West Coast, where the Athletics have the best record in the league and the Mariners are keeping within striking distance. If the Sox can't hit here, how will they fare on the Coast?
"It'll probably be easier," Pierzynski said.
OK, so you say. It can't be any harder.