Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: The magic has returned to Fenway
THE sellout streak may be over, the pregame pomp and circumstance may be more muted, the scene may generally be more subtle - but the magic is back at Fenway Park.
That was obvious late Thursday night, when David Ortiz laced a laser into the visitors' bullpen, felling the Rangers with a rocket shot of a three-run homer that made 6-3 winners of the Red Sox as soon as he reached the rambunctiousness waiting for him at home plate.
The blast gave the Sox their fifth walkoff win of the season, which in barely two months is already two more than they had all of last year, and that total doesn't even include some of the other drama that's unfolded this spring. Remember, it was only the seventh inning of the home opener, then the eighth inning of the first game after the Marathon bombing suspects were hunted down, that Daniel Nava launched the long balls that made Boston winners in arguably the two biggest games yet played on Yawkey Way this year.
With all that, Fenway has begun to feel special again. It has begun to regain some of the sizzle it lost last year en route to rock bottom. It has begun to once more be a place where opponents feel uncomfortable because their hosts never feel out of any game.
And if all that continues, the century-old ballpark may find itself the site of even more magic come October.
Between 2003-09, the Red Sox made the playoffs six times in seven seasons, winning two World Series, and a major facet of their success was baseball's best home record - but over the next three years they slid from first to 19th in that category as their winning percentage slipped from .658 to .514.
This year, though, Fenway has provided a home-field advantage again. Entering Saturday's doubleheader, Boston was 19-12 on home turf. That's a .594 winning percentage. And that number is significant.
Since 1988, every season in which the Sox posted a .600 winning percentage at Fenway ended with a playoff berth. On the contrary, the only time they reached the postseason when winning less than 60 percent of their home contests was the strike-shortened campaign of 1995.
The standings have in recent seasons similarly stressed the importance of winning at home. In the past two seasons specifically, 13 teams have finished won at least 49 home games (that's the equivalent to a .600-plus winning percentage); 12 of those clubs made the postseason, 11 won their division.
Entering Saturday, the Red Sox were on pace for 48 home wins. So there's still work to do - but after going 34-47 in Boston a year ago, they have already achieved much of the necessary improvement. Fenway is beginning to feel electric again.
And, come September, its magic may leave the Sox looking at a magic number.
"In the way we have created that character about us," outfielder Jonny Gomes said, "we've kind of created a nice home-field advantage."
In a walkoff win, it's usually one guy who winds up getting pounded by his teammates and credited with the game-winning knock. But when asked why the Sox seem to have a knack for such dramatics early this season, Jon Lester's explanation suggested Boston's triumphs are the product of a total-team effort.
"We're playing good baseball," the lefty said. "I think the biggest thing is we're not shooting ourselves in the foot late in the games as far as making errors and doing dumb things. That'll keep us in games. The back end of our bullpen's been great, and that'll also keep us close.
"You give these guys enough chances and they're going to score some runs and do some damage."
In taking high school lefty Trey Ball with the seventh overall pick, the Red Sox spent a first-round pick on pitching for the sixth time since 2010. Later that same day, they also went pitching with their second-round pick, taking Teddy Stankiewicz from a junior college in Texas, and overall took seven hurlers in the draft's first 10 rounds.
Repeatedly targeting that position is partially because of its general unpredictability, given the frequency with which pitchers are injured or fall short of their perceived potential. But it's also partially because upper-level pitching isn't always easy to acquire.
So far this season, none of the top 21 most valuable major-league pitchers according to Baseball-Reference's calculation of wins against replacement was acquired via traditional free agency. Seven came by trade, one from Japan, and the rest were acquired as amateurs.
Last year four free agents made the top 14, but in 2011 Cliff Lee was the top 29's lone open-market signee, and in 2010 there were only two in the top 25.
Essentially, elite pitching doesn't come easy - so by stockpiling talent the Sox are trying to give themselves their best chance of finding it in a few years.
On May 1, with Joel Hanrahan having just returned from the disabled list, there was some question of who the Red Sox closer would be. But it turned out to be a moot discussion - even when Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were on the DL simultaneously.
Through Friday, the Red Sox had won 19 of 35 since, but had recorded just three saves in four opportunities to close out a game in the ninth inning. And that's simply a testament to their dominance. Even with three walkoffs and another extra-inning win included, the average score in Boston's victories since May 1 has been 7.3-2.4. Meanwhile, opponents have needed to record a save 10 of the 16 times they've beaten the Sox over the same stretch.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Thursday's triumph was the Sox' fifth in 23 games when trailing after six innings. Last year they won only seven of 83 such opportunities.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.