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Sunday, May 9, 2010
Updated: May 10, 2:22 PM ET
More challenges ahead for Red Sox

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- After a face-saving 9-3 win over the New York Yankees on Sunday night, let us consider what awaits the Red Sox over the next 16 games:

•Three games against Toronto, which comes into town Monday night with a 12-4 road record, second to only Tampa Bay (13-3) in the majors, and winner of nine of 12 since being swept in three straight by the Red Sox in the Rogers Centre.

•Four games in Detroit against the Tigers, whose 9-3 home record is second best in the American League.

•Two games in New York against the Yankees, who are a league-best 10-2 at home and have beaten the Red Sox in four of six meetings this season.

•Two games at home against the Minnesota Twins, who took two of three from the Sox in Target Field and lead the AL Central.

•Three games in Philadelphia against the defending National League champion Phillies, who lead the NL East.

•Three games in Tampa Bay against the Rays, who had a perfect game thrown against them Sunday by Oakland's Dallas Braden but have the majors' best record.

Let's break it down even further, based on performances entering Sunday.

•The Sox will be facing seven of the top 10 hitters in the AL, led by Miguel Cabrera and Austin Jackson of the Tigers, the top RBI man in Cabrera, and potentially the top winner in the National League in Roy Halladay, the former Blue Jay who was tied for wins with Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez with six apiece.

•Against Toronto, they'll be facing three of the league's top 10 home run hitters, including former Sox shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who improbably comes to town with 10 home runs, tied for second in the league.

The hysteria will leave town with the Yankees, but the hard labor remains for the Sox, who are back at .500 (16-16) after exploiting the Fenway phobia of Yankees starter A.J. Burnett, who lasted just one out into the fifth after giving up nine runs (eight earned) on nine hits, inflating his ERA from 1.99 to 3.40 in a single night.

Burnett's pitching has become so pathetic at Fenway since he put on pinstripes (0-3, 12.68 ERA in five starts) that Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who skipped Javier Vazquez's turn here because he didn't want to expose the brittle Vazquez to this hostile environment, might want to ask for volunteers on the Bombers' next trip to Boston.

The Sox hit Burnett for a five spot in the third. After he issued two walks sandwiched around a double by Dustin Pedroia, Burnett gave up a sacrifice fly to J.D. Drew, back-to-back doubles by David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre, and a run-scoring single by Jeremy Hermida.

Adrian Beltre
Adrian Beltre's surprising offense (.333) has made up for his disappointing defense (seven errors).

Kevin Youkilis doubled home a run in the fourth, and Beltre's second double and a home run by Hermida, his fourth of the season, made it 9-2.

Jon Lester gave up solo home runs to Nick Swisher and Alex Rodriguez in the fourth but otherwise shut down the Yankees in his third straight strong start. Lester struck out seven in seven innings while allowing four hits and walking two.

Lester has gone at least seven innings in each of his past three starts and allowed just three earned runs in his past 27 2/3 innings.

"I saw what I used to see when I faced him," Beltre said of Lester. "He used his cutter a lot in on right-handed hitters, threw his breaking ball, his changeup. He was throwing strikes. His last three outings he's thrown, he has been pretty close to perfect. He has the stuff to do that."

Beltre's defense has been uncharacteristically shaky -- he has committed seven errors, most among major league third basemen -- and the misplays have thus far outnumbered the flashes of brilliance, although that is virtually certain to change.

Offensively, however, Beltre is at a place he hasn't been since he finished second in the MVP voting for the Dodgers in 2004. He's not showing anywhere close to the power he had in L.A., when he hit 48 homers, but he is hitting .397 (23-for-58) with eight extra-base hits and 12 RBIs his past 14 games.

The .333 average he will take into Monday night's game against the Blue Jays is easily the highest his average has been this late into a season since he finished 2004 with a .334 average with the Dodgers, the only .300 season of his 13-year career. And he can hardly be called a Fenway creation, as he is hitting for a higher average on the road (.362) than at home (.314).

Some of Beltre's most impressive hitting has been with two strikes. He's batting .346 (18-for-52) after two strikes, and his fifth-inning double Sunday night came on an 0-and-2 pitch.

Unlike, say, J.D. Drew, a patient hitter who came into Sunday's game batting just .176 when the pitcher is ahead in the count, .345 when he has the advantage, Beltre is batting .359 (14-for-39) when the count is in the pitcher's favor.

Their differing approaches are paying off for both players. Drew had two more hits Sunday, raising his average to .500 (12-for-24) on the homestand.

"It's good and it's bad," the free-swinging Beltre said of his two-strike approach. "The thing is, when I've got two strikes, I'm ready to swing. A lot of other guys take close pitches, which is good, but with me you better throw it far from the plate because I'm going to protect it.

"Sometimes I want to be one of those patient guys that take close balls and wait for a better pitch to hit, but so far it's worked."

The Sox need to find something that does. The departure of the Yankees hardly means the task gets any easier.

"You're going to go up and down," Youkilis said. "We'd love to win nine in a row, 10 in a row. We haven't been playing good baseball. It could be a lot worse than where we're at. Got to keep grinding. Long season. We'll be fine."

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.