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BOSTON -- The only polls Terry Francona pays attention to divide fair from foul, not who appears on his lineup card.
The Red Sox manager understands that while followers of the team are rightfully known as the Fenway Faithful, they can just as often be the Fenway Fickle, ready to pass judgment not only from game to game but from at-bat to at-bat.
Francona can't operate that way. He's as likely to allow public opinion to determine how he uses David Ortiz as Theo Epstein is apt to toss a towel in the air to distract the opposing pitcher.
It's just not happening.
So Ortiz played Wednesday night, and Francona hoped for the best.
Blind faith? No. Francona was playing the percentages, the numbers showing Ortiz had the best stats on the team against Angels starter Joel Pineiro. Those numbers just got better. The night after Dustin Pedroia was compelled to defend Big Papi against the hordes ready to send him into permanent exile, Ortiz singled, homered and walked in Boston's third straight win over the Los Angeles Angels, 3-1.
The Sox are now at .500 (14-14), just three days after being swept by the Baltimore Orioles, who have won more games (four) against the Sox than they have the rest of the American League.
How to account for the turnaround?
A. Epstein's blistering assessment of the Sox as the un-team, guilty of "unintelligent, undisciplined, and uninspired" play?
B. The team meeting the club held the next day in which players all but took a blood oath that they would mend their ways?
C. The spike in support Pedroia provided for Ortiz when he pledged to vote for Papi in the nightly cable TV polls asking what should be done with the struggling DH?
D. The limited resistance offered by the Angels, who swept the Sox in the playoffs last year, but at 12-17 (and in the midst of a six-game losing streak) are listing even worse than the Sox?
E. A Red Sox rotation that is finally living up to its advance notices?
The guess here: A little of A, B, C and D, and plenty of E.
In the past eight games, Sox starters are 5-1 with a 2.82 ERA, numbers that would be even better if Daisuke Matsuzaka -- who pitches the series finale Thursday -- had not imploded in a six-run fifth inning Saturday in Baltimore.
"It's going to happen, guys," said John Lackey, who held his former teammates to two hits, one a home run by Brandon Wood, in seven innings in what was easily his most impressive outing of the young season.
"We've got guys with pretty good track records on this staff. We've just got to be who we are and not try to do too much."
|John Lackey saved his best for his former team, limiting the Angels to two hits over seven innings.|
In Lackey's case, it probably required some effort not to see red when he looked in the other dugout. For eight seasons -- from the time he won Game 7 as a rookie in the Angels' only trip to the World Series until he helped eliminate the Sox in the playoffs last season -- Lackey had been a vital part of the Angels' success, his competitive zeal reflecting anything but Southern California cool.
But when he became a free agent last winter, the Angels approached re-signing him with something less than a full-court press. Lackey noticed, and quickly instructed his agent to let the Red Sox know that he was eminently available.
A surprised Epstein quickly adjusted his offseason strategy, the 31-year-old Texan landed here, and he hasn't looked back. This week, he said all the right things about his time as an Angel, "the ton of respect" he had for Angels manager Mike Scioscia, but he also opined, to ESPNLosAngeles' Mark Saxon, that loyalty often was a one-way street in Anaheim.
"It's different. The way they preach the team game and giving it up for the team. That's a little suspect," Lackey said. "You're supposed to give it up for the team. When the time comes, they might not want to give it up for you. But I totally knew that was a possibility. I was prepared for that. That's the nature of the game today."
So while Lackey downplayed the presence of added incentive when he took the mound Wednesday, his performance suggested otherwise.
"Early on he was definitely throwing a lot harder than I remember," Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said. "Maybe he was a little pumped up, of course, but he knew where the strike zone was and he stayed right there, and that's what Lackey does best.
"The way we're going, everybody looks like Cy Young. When it's going bad, it's going bad. You look at the last five, six games, we're getting our ass handed to us."
Lackey acknowledged that his fastball command was better than it had been in his previous five starts, then conjured up a mix of pitches that led to 12 ground-ball outs, including one double play in which third baseman Adrian Beltre dodged the shrapnel of a broken bat to help turn two.
"Guys took care of me tonight," said Lackey, who is now 3-1. "AB made a couple of great plays for me tonight. One with a bat flying in his face, turning the double play, then a backhand stab [on Howie Kendrick in the fifth] that might have been better than that.
"When you're getting ground balls, you need guys to field them and make plays. They certainly did that."
The Sox are making plays and hitting home runs. Ortiz, who came into the game hitting .391 (9-for-23) against Pineiro, took a changeup the opposite way in the fourth to expand the Sox's lead to 2-0. Beltre, who began this season with no home runs in Fenway Park, now has two in three games, driving a ball 425 feet onto the top of the camera well in center field to pad the Boston lead in the eighth.
And so it is that the Sox ended the night with as many wins as they have losses.
"We need to get a lot higher than .500," Lackey said. "This is a starting point. We need to keep moving."
And if a little group therapy helped, that's fine, too.
"I think sometimes it's good just for things to be acknowledged out loud," Lackey said of the team meeting. "Sometimes the words aren't as important as the act."
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.