Nothing makes the chilly temperature rise like an Opening Day win, and with it a pristine record that evokes idyllic hopes of 162-0. It came yesterday, a near-perfect performance in the Red Sox’ second stab at game No. 1, a renewal of acquaintances with the team that kept them from getting to the World Series last year.
So 26 hours after Josh Beckett was supposed to head to the mound, after the rains had washed away the first Opening Day, the staff ace made like a staff ace as the Fenway Park crowd met the 2009 version of the Red Sox.
It was, in its 2-hour-39-minute efficiency, its close score, its mastery on the mound, perhaps the quintessential contemporary Red Sox experience. With one of the best pitching staffs in baseball and an offense that is far more of a doubles threat than a home run threat, the Sox probably will be winning more games in yesterday’s fashion than in the fashion of yore.
“I think we’ve got a great offense, I think we’ve definitely got great starting pitching,” J.D. Drew said. “It’s just a matter of getting them enough runs to get the victory. I think what you saw today was a good example of what you’ll see a lot this year.”
Those slugfests? Those 10-8 games? Those might be in the past, with yesterday’s 5-3 win over the Rays serving as Exhibit A, what Mike Lowell called “a nice, complete game.” Not that everyone is exactly buying that theory.
“It’s come into question, our offense,” Kevin Youkilis said. “I don’t know where it came from. I’ll tell you what, we’ve got a pretty good team. We’ve got a good offensive team and good pitching. It’s going to take us a long way.
“Our offense is not going to be the reason why we get to the postseason. It’s always your pitching. So as long as we pitch well, we’ll have a chance to do good things around here.”
Though Beckett said, “It didn’t really matter who we were playing, it’s always good to get a win,” the Sox won the first of what could be 18 crucial games against the Rays. It gives the Sox a leg up, if only for a day, against the team that, along with the Yankees, is supposed to challenge them in the American League East.
“We play a lot of those, we just do,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said of high-pressure division games. “It’s good for their baseball soul.”
For now, the Sox will attempt to get their pitchers the support they need. No need to worry about their offense yet, at least not after what was on display yesterday against (Big Game) James Shields and behind a brilliant Beckett. It was enough, and that was what was important.
The early contributors were almost predictable. Dustin Pedroia homered on the second pitch he saw, prompting his inevitable dugout chirping about the 600 or so homers he might hit this year.
“That’s Pedroia for you,” Drew said. “He’s just going to scatter around rockets, as he says. We’ll just sit back and laugh, and hopefully, he does what he does and we win ballgames.”
After the Rays tied it on Carl Crawford’s sacrifice fly in the third, the Sox responded with three in the bottom of the inning on a walk to Pedroia, a single by Youkilis, Drew’s RBI grounder, Jason Bay’s two-out RBI single, and Lowell’s Wall-denting RBI double.
There was a pleasant surprise in the sixth, Jason Varitek’s home run slicing just fair into the right-field stands, an exclamation directed at all those ready to toe-tag his offense from the left side.
“We’re capable of scoring a lot of runs, this offense,” Drew said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are table setters, a lot of guys that can drive the ball out of the park. And it can be any given guy, any given night.”
The moments went as if scripted: Senator Edward Kennedy throwing out the first pitch to Jim Rice; Beckett riling up the crowd with his 10th strikeout on his 93d and final pitch; Jonathan Papelbon jogging in to nail it down; the utter joy for the 37,057 taking vacation days and sick days for this spring ritual.
The virtuoso - with apologies to Keith Lockhart - was Beckett. Allowing one run in seven innings of two-hit ball, Beckett demonstrated that a healthy start to the season can mean more than a few shaky numbers in spring training. And he showed, once again, that the biggest stage is where he shines, pushing his Opening Day record to 2-1 with a 1.59 ERA in four chances, yesterday marking his first such start with the Sox.
“He was Josh Beckett,” said Evan Longoria, who tightened up the game with a two-run eighth-inning single that made it 5-3. “He was ready to pitch today. When he got into jams and stuff, he was able to make his pitches.
“I think he was just himself. He executed his pitches and especially executed them when he needed to. I don’t think he was anything other than advertised. He’s Josh Beckett. He’s always been that.”
Except in the last postseason, when a diminished Beckett faced the Rays. Yesterday he resembled that Beckett only in the third, when two walks and an Akinori Iwamura single loaded the bases and Crawford’s fly to center tied it, 1-1. Other than that, he was vintage Beckett. When he encountered more trouble in the sixth, he got out of a second-and-third, no-out jam.
The only lapse for the Sox was in the eighth, when Hideki Okajima hit Jason Bartlett and walked Iwamura, bringing in Justin Masterson. Though Masterson allowed both inherited runners to score on Longoria’s hit, he got out of the inning, serving as the bridge to Papelbon.
Three batters later, including two strikeouts, it was over. The pageantry was done. The Sox were 1-0.
“It was a good day,” manager Terry Francona said, the anxiety of the first game gone, the grind of a 162-game season on the horizon. “Now we’ll come right back tomorrow and see if we can make another one.”