I don't think many Boston fans believed that the Sox would actually sweep the Rays based on previous performance. Two of three was likely, but a sweep? That was a great way to kick off the final push for the playoffs. Now the Rays are a distant third, the Sox picked up two games on the Yanks to cut the lead to seven and expanded their wildcard lead over the Rangers from two games to four.
It started off with a nice, if abbreviated outing from Josh Beckett on Saturday night. With the rain coming down in Fenway, Beckett gave up just one run on four hits in five innings of work before the game was called in the top of the sixth with the Sox leading 9-1. That was enough to give Beckett his 15th win of the season and made Beckett just the 11th pitcher in Boston history to win 15+ games in three of his first four years with the Sox. The only other two pitchers to do it in the past 40 years are Luis Tiant and Pedro.
The shortened game also was a boon to the Sox since it kept their bullpen fresh for the doubleheader on Sunday and gave the position players a little extra rest. And they needed it after wearing themselves out with an eight-run third inning. The highlights of the inning were Youk driving a run in and then scoring later on a wild pitch, Gonzalez clearing the bases on a deep double and Ellsbury bringing him home. Youk then got another RBI in the fourth with his 25th homer of the year.
So the Sox were riding some positive momentum into the first game on Sunday, a match-up between Clay Buchholz and Matt Garza that turned into a pitcher's duel. Buchholz went seven innings and allowed just one run on five hits. And while his control wasn't perfect (59% of pitches for strikes, 46% of batters saw first-pitch strikes), Buchholz was able to come back and get the batters out. He was in line for his sixth win of the year, but was unable to keep a 1-0 lead in the seventh. Jason Bartlett hit an infield single with guys on second and third. One run scored as Pedroia's throw to first went wide. But in a heads-up play, Kotchman came off the bag and rifled the ball home. Victor Martinez blocked the plate perfectly as the second runner also tried to score and tagged him out. That kept the game at one until the eighth. Okajima pitched a clean top of the eighth, and then with one on and one out Pedroia smacked a two-run homer to right to give Boston the 3-1 lead. Papelbon then came on in the ninth. He allowed one hit but got all three outs on strikeouts for his 36th save of the year.
Mighty Mite is on a bit of a tear. In the past six games he is hitting .409 with a 1.367 OPS. He has three homers, six RBI, two walks and no strikeouts over that stretch. He's slightly off the pace of his MVP season last year, but well ahead of where he was in 2007. The only where he is lagging is in his batting average. Pedroia has hit .315 or better in his first two seasons. Right now he is batting .297, thanks to a slow first week in September. But if he keeps hitting like this, he should easily clear the .300 mark at least by season's end.
And then came Lester's performance on Sunday.
Lester has looked amazing for close to two months now. He hasn't lost a game since July 19th (5-0 in 10 decisions since then). He has won his past three starts and Lester has not allowed an earned run in his last fifteen innings pitched. That includes the eight amazing innings he pitched in Boston's series-sweeping 4-0 win over Tampa. Lester allowed just two hits in those eight innings and no runs. He struck out seven and walked three. That boosted his strikeout total to 211 (3rd in the AL) and his wins to 13 (8th in the AL). James Shields never really stood a chance going against Lester yesterday. And while his six innings and three runs wasn't bad, it wasn't good enough to keep Tampa in the game when Lester was dominant.
With Lester pitching like he was on Sunday, the Sox didn't need much from their lineup. The bulk of the run scoring in Boston's 4-0 win came on Jason Varitek's two-run single in the sixth that made it 3-0. It was Varitek's first multi-RBI game since July 30th against Oakland. Bay tacked on a solo shot in the eighth, giving him 32 homers so far in 2009 and 101 RBI. Combine that with his excellent defense in left (zero errors, 15 assists, 2 DPs) and the Sox, in my opinion, have to make re-signing Bay a priority once 2009 comes to a close. And yes, it will cost a pretty penny. But how many left-fielders have Gold Glove caliber defense and can put up 30 homers and 100 RBI? The only one that comes to mind is Juan Rivera in Los Angeles, and he trails Bay in both categories. Other than that you're getting either the bat or the glove, not both. The Sox need Bay and they'll have to pay for him. It's that simple.
Tonight is Boston's last night off in the 2009 regular season, baring rainouts and the like. Tomorrow kicks off three games against the Angels and the return of Daisuke Matsuzaka to Fenway. It will be interesting to see what kind of reception he gets after that dustup earlier in the year where he blamed the team for his lousy start to 2009. But the word is that Daisuke has dropped some weight and looks good. Of course, he has looked good against single-A competition. Nevertheless, a healthy and effective Daisuke makes Boston's chances in the postseason that much better.
And as I mentioned before, the Yankees are now just seven games ahead of the Sox. They have a final three game tilt in the Bronx starting September 25. Before that, the Yankees have to make a six-game west coast swing, including three with the Angels. The last time the Yanks headed to LA, they were swept. So as much as Aviv and all the other Yankee fans want to call the AL East race finished...not yet, my friends. Not yet.