BOSTON -- STANDING IN in the middle of the cameras and microphones after catching nine innings Tuesday night, a T-shirt featuring a picture of Ham calling his shot in "The Sandlot" was far more reflective of David Ross' excitement level than the gray hair that permeated his growing beard.
"That was a lot of fun tonight," the Red Sox' backup catcher said, a big smile opening between the hair on his face. "This crowd, and playing them, it made for a real playoff atmosphere with everybody into it. Big hits got the guys excited, that atmosphere with what the pitchers were doing — when I got done with that game, I said, 'That was a lot of fun.' "
Tuesday was indeed a fun and invigorating night at Fenway Park, where seven strong innings from Jon Lester enabled the Red Sox to deal 19-game winner Max Scherzer just his second loss of this season, a 2-1 Boston triumph that ensured the Sox would exit their three-game series with the Tigers as owners of the best record in the American League.
And that validated the Red Sox as a legitimate threat that should fear no matchup — no team, no pitcher, no lineup — come October.
It's still Detroit that could very likely have the AL's Cy Young Award winner (Scherzer) and the AL's Most Valuable Player (Miguel Cabrera), while scoring more runs than any other club (it's currently first) and allowing the fewest (it's currently second). Boston, meanwhile, probably won't place a player in the top 10 of voting for either of those individual awards, and while its offense is on par with the Tigers, its pitching is nearer the middle of the pack. On paper, the edge goes to Detroit. Perhaps decidedly.
Yet after the series that wrapped up with a rubber game Wednesday night, the Red Sox proved that on the field, if not on paper, they can compete with the Tigers. Detroit's four playoff-probable starters might all rank among the AL's top 18 in earned run average, but entering the series finale the Red Sox had the best ERA in all of baseball (2.31) since Aug. 19, including a 2.49 mark from the rotation.
Detroit may have Cabrera, and Prince Fielder, and Victor Martinez, and Torii Hunter, but the Red Sox averaged more runs per game over the month of August. Detroit may have the revered Jim Leyland, but it's been hard to find much fault with anything John Farrell has done in the dugout lately.
The Red Sox have been good enough all along that they needed to win just 12 of their final 22 to reach 95 wins for the season — and now they appear to be moving toward their peak at a perfect time, entering Wednesday with a chance to win five consecutive series for the first time this season, and continuing to demonstrate their impressive knack for meeting the moment.
That was on full display Tuesday, when they took on the best the Tigers have, and still came away winners. Early in the game, Scherzer was throwing as well as Leyland has seen this season, yet Lester made a big-time pitch to Cabrera with the bases loaded to keep the Sox in the game. That made Will Middlebrooks' two-out, two-run hit meaningful. And it became decisive when three relievers got one out apiece before Koji Uehara notched the save on nine pitches.It was a big game — "The leverage on every pitch and every play," Farrell said, "yeah, there was a little bit more importance just because of the score and who we're going up against" — and the Red Sox collectively came up big under that pressure. As they have been doing all year. And as they'll need to do against teams the caliber of the Tigers come October."When we came into spring training with the group that we had, we kind of knew," shortstop Stephen Drew said. "It takes time, and we've got to go out and play every day — (but) looking back you can kind of see the chemistry on the team. It's good. Everybody knows their role, and hopefully we just keep it rolling."
They'll attempt to do that tonight in New York, where they start a four-game series against the Yankees. Their rivals have been playing well lately, to the point they were within striking distance of a wild-card berth, so there's still a chance the Yankees could be one of those teams the Sox have to contend with in the playoffs.After what they've showed lately, especially after Tuesday's excitement, the Sox needn't fear the Yankees, though. Or anybody.
With Cabrera leading off the eighth on Tuesday night, and Lester finished, Farrell had a choice as he looked to the bullpen. He could've gone right to Junichi Tazawa. Instead he went with rookie Brandon Workman.And Workman rewarded that faith. After falling behind 2-and-0, he induced a lazy flyball to right from the reigning triple crown winner — and likely earning himself more high-leverage opportunities moving forward.
"Being put into a big situation like that with one of the best — if not the best — hitter in the game, it's a big spot and a spot I like to be in," Workman said. "I like being put into places like that, so I was excited for it."
And when he is placed in that situation again, the 25-year-old righty will carry with him the confidence from that encounter.
"Confidence-wise, it was obviously a big out," he said. "It was only one out, but it was a big out for us. It builds confidence to go in there and get that done."
After sitting a night earlier to rest an ailing right hand that will require management the rest of the season, Jacoby Ellsbury was back atop the Red Sox lineup. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia sat again with back soreness, while Clay Buchholz's wife gave birth to the couple's second child, so he remains on track to make his final rehab start today. He'll pitch for Triple-A Pawtucket in their playoff series at Rochester.
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.