PHILADELPHIA - You often hear players say that it’s more rewarding to win with defense than with a big hit or a big pitching performance.
So little is made of great defense, but the Red Sox won Saturday night’s game because Ryan Sweeney made a great catch in the gap in right-center field to rob Carlos Ruiz of extra bases in the seventh inning and prevent two runs from scoring. The Sox led, 7-4, at the time and eventually won, 7-5.
When the Sox had their players-only meeting some 10 days ago, one of the things discussed was playing all out, all the time, doing your respective part to contribute to winning. Since then the Sox have been a much better team - winning seven of nine - and showing improvement in all facets of the game.
We wrote in this space early in the season that the players had to take responsibility for the slow start. So now they deserve the accolades for turning things around and finding new ways to win.
Last night, they shined defensively.
“I thought it saved the game,’’ manager Bobby Valentine said. “That’s a highlight-reel catch. That’s a top-10er. I don’t think he had anything left. He gave everything he had and I don’t think he had anything left.
“Adrian [Gonzalez] made two good catches [in right field], the first looked like a routine a high fly off a righthanded bat [Ty Wigginton in the second inning] and goes down the line and comes back. And then the sliding catch was terrific.’’
The sliding catch Valentine was referring to was Gonzalez’s play on Hunter Pence’s drive in foul territory in the third inning. Gonzalez ran far, slid, and caught the ball before hitting the railing.
Not bad for a Gold Glove first baseman pressed into action in right field while David Ortiz played first in interleague play.
Strange that on a night when the Sox had two guys playing out of position they played a superb defensive game. They turned three double plays, with a couple of hellacious turns by Dustin Pedroia at second base with contact.
“We’re trying to prevent runs,’’ said Pedroia. “Ryan’s catch saved the game for us. The ball carries here and he put a good swing on a 50-mile-an-hour [eephus pitch from Vicente Padilla]. Hopefully it didn’t hit the wall but he ran it down and made a great play.’’
And of Pedroia’s gutsy turns with runners bearing down?
“I know in that situation they’re coming in hard to break it up. You try to protect yourself as much as you can and make the play,’’ Pedroia said.
Sweeney said he suffered a little whiplash as a result of the face-first diving catch into the warning track.
“I was playing him [Ruiz] to pull a little bit. I just thought I could catch it right off the bat and I kept going after it. I knew Adrian was playing far away so he just told me anything I could get in the gap to get it, and I did,’’ Sweeney said.
“It was awesome,’’ Gonzalez said. “It was an incredible play. He knew the guy in right wasn’t going to get there so he had a straight line and nobody was going to get in his way. I was just backing him up in case he didn’t make the catch. Incredible catch. Game-saving.’’
Sweeney has been used mostly in right field (22 starts there, six in center) this season, but can play all three outfield positions well. He’s probably Boston’s best defensive outfielder.
“I had to run a long way,’’ he said. “To dive on the warning track is never fun either.’’
Sweeney made his share of highlight catches in Oakland in the expanse of the Coliseum, but this was a smaller ballpark where he had to be cognizant of where he was. There are no wide-open spaces at Citizens Bank Park.
“Probably up there in the top five I would say,’’ said Sweeney when asked where the catch ranks in his career. “As far as diving and how I feel afterward, got a little bit of a headache. Wind was fine but I feel like I got whiplash. You run hard and then your momentum comes to a stop and my neck feels like it was a little jolted right now.’’
While Gonzalez admired Sweeney’s work, Sweeney admired Gonzalez’s sliding catch.
“It’s pretty impressive,’’ Sweeney said. “He runs after it a little slow but he knows what he’s doing as far as timing against the wall and the way he went about those balls. It looked like he’s done it before.’’
Gonzalez said he feels comfortable in right field because he played the position in winter ball.
Valentine said that if Gonzalez had speed, he’d be a five-tool player. But Gonzalez had trouble agreeing with his manager because, “Five-tool player? How about hitting? I can’t hit [he went 0 for 4 to drop his average to .266]. You have to be able to hit to have that tool, don’t you? I’m missing hitting and power right now. And speed. That’s three. I might be a one-tool player. I have a good arm. I’m accurate,’’ he said.
Sweeney even heard cheers from the tough Philly fans one night after he heard a rash of expletives while playing right field.
“Everybody was happy,’’ Sweeney said. “It changed the game. If that ball falls in, I don’t know what the score would have been but it would have been pretty close. To have that momentum and to have everybody happy we got out of the inning, gave everybody a boost to finish off the game.’’
Sweeney also doubled and scored in the second inning.
“It’s always good to get a big hit,’’ he said. “I’ve always said, sometimes if I’m not driving in a run, I’m saving two runs, I see that being just as good. Any time you can save runs for your pitcher, it’s huge.’’
Sweeney said that he practices all three outfield positions. Sweeney moved to right field in the ninth while Marlon Byrd came on to play center, with Gonzalez shifting to first base.
“I just do my work in BP,’’ Sweeney said. “And I’ve played enough of all three where I’m comfortable anywhere they put me. I just try to get good reads and play where I think they’re going to hit it and get good jumps.’’
The Red Sox have never been known for their defense. But in these times with key players out, they have to win in different ways. In a hitters’ ballpark, robbing players of extra-base hits or an extra pitch to hit can make all the difference.
The little things turned into big things Saturday night because everyone did their job.