PHILADELPHIA - There’s a chance the American League East could begin to change when the Red Sox begin a three-game series against the Orioles Monday night at Camden Yards.
Not that a sweep would allow the Sox to overtake the Orioles, but they could tighten things up and send a message to the team that kept them out of the playoffs last season.
Fact is, the Sox are coming together as a team. Something has clicked. They are different now.
“People were saying Josh Beckett was a cancer,’’ said David Ortiz after Beckett tossed 7 2/3 innings and allowed one run in a 5-1 win over the Phillies Sunday at Citizens Bank Park.
“What are they gonna say about him now? He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. It’s incredible that people base things on one thing. People put too much emphasis on what happens in April. We’re coming together. We’re playing good baseball now. We know we’re a good team.’’
Ortiz said that at a recent players-only team meeting “we just said to each other that everybody has to take care of their own jobs. Do your job. If you’re David Ortiz, worry about David Ortiz. If you’re Adrian Gonzalez, worry about Adrian Gonzalez.’’
Ortiz’s own job description had changed. The last two games he was David Ortiz, first baseman. And the DH keeps proving he can play there. He played superb, if not flashy defense.
Gonzalez, the regular first baseman, played right field for the second straight game. That was necessitated by the fact that the Sox started the game shorthanded.
Ryan Sweeney, who made a great diving catch in right-center field to rob Carlos Ruiz of extra bases and two RBIs Saturday night in a 7-5 Boston win, was being monitored for a possible concussion. Cody Ross was still hobbling after fouling a ball off his left foot Friday night.
So manager Bobby Valentine had no choice but to go with a lineup that featured Ortiz at first and Gonzalez in right.
Most everyone thought that Ortiz and Gonzalez might be defensive liabilities, but they turned into assets.
When WBZ’s Jon Miller asked Gonzalez if he wouldn’t mind playing right field permanently, he said loudly, “I’ll play wherever the team needs me.’’
With Kevin Youkilis likely rejoining the major league team Tuesday, one wonders if the Sox might take Gonzalez up on that and do more mixing and matching in an effort to get the bats of Youkilis, Ortiz, Gonzalez, and Will Middlebrooks all in the game at the same time.
The Sox survived the first wave of interleague play by taking two out of three from the Phillies in their ballpark, and have won eight of their last 10.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia struck out three times, but he also hit a three-run homer in the third inning. He hit it righthanded on a 2-and-0 count from lefthander Cliff Lee, which made it 5-0. Valentine decided he was going to go with the hot hand in Saltalamacchia rather than Kelly Shoppach, even after Salty had caught the night before.
“Got a real strong guy there,’’ said Valentine about Saltalamacchia. “If there is any indication he needed to be off today, he’d be off today.’’
The other story line is the Sox returning to the scene of the Sept. 28, 2011 crime, the night the Orioles kept the Sox out of the playoffs with Robert Andino’s walkoff hit in front of Carl Crawford. Baltimore is baseball’s most surprising team in 2012 and is atop the AL East.
“We’ll win in Baltimore,’’ Valentine said. “This team is really coming together. We’re doing a lot of good things out there together. Everyone is doing their part.’’
Valentine is right.
There seems to be more of a sense of urgency these days.
A National League general manager, watching the game on TV, texted, “Looks like they care again.’’
That may be the best way to describe it.
Whether it was the backlash of Beckett’s Golfgate, or the adversity they’ve gone through with injuries, or getting used to the way Valentine does things, or the players-only meeting, this has become a team.
While the Phillies posed a challenge, they are suffering from the same major injury problem as the Sox. The Phillies are always a challenge when they’re pitching Cole Hamels and Lee in the same series. But now the Sox will be facing the best team in the league in the Orioles, who have proven to be a feisty bunch.
Adam Jones has emerged as a superstar.
Jim Johnson is one of the best closers in baseball, and their starters are pitching deep into games.
The Orioles swept the Red Sox in a three-game series at Fenway Park May 4-6.
There are all sorts of reasons why the Red Sox want this series.
“We don’t have motivation because of what happened last year, we have motivation because they’re one very good team right now and we have to be at our best to win,’’ Ortiz said.
“I mean, they might have the best closer in the game right now,’’ Ortiz said of Johnson. “His two-seamer is so heavy. It’s like back when Mariano [Rivera] threw 95-96, so now he’s throwing sinkers at 95-96 miles per hour. Hard for everybody, lefties or righties. He’s like Mariano with that cutter, but sinking it, and then he had some other stuff too.
“I saw him pitch the other day and I said, ‘Wow.’ And he’s a kid who couldn’t throw strikes.
“Then their starting pitchers, they’re going at it. That kid [Brian] Matusz. Last year he lost it a little bit, not now. I saw somebody talking about taking things day by day and that’s exactly what they’re doing.’’
“You have to be on your toes when you’re playing those guys,’’ Ortiz added.
Ortiz, who was beaten by the Phillies’ shift twice on hard-hit balls to medium right field where second Freddy Galvis was playing, has a ton of respect for Jones.
“Adam Jones is a great player. He’s my boy,’’ said Ortiz. “I had a talk with him the other day. I told him, ‘Hey you need to stay like that through the season.’ He always starts good and something happens and he’s out of it. He’s put up some good numbers through the years. The way he’s swinging the bat, he’s a $100 million player, no question.’’
Jones will be Orioles GM Dan Duquette’s major signing project this winter. Jones can be a free agent after the 2013 season and it appears he will be asking for north of $100 million before it’s over.
“He’s had an excellent season,’’ said Duquette. “He’s really done everything for us. He’s a very good player. Overall, I think we’ve just been a team that has pitched very well with our starters and our bullpen. We’ve gotten some big hits.’’
The Sox don’t want to put too much emphasis on the revenge factor.
“No, I mean it’s just another game like any other day,’’ shortstop Mike Aviles said. “They’re a team in our division, a team that’s playing well, and we need to play three hard games and keep playing hard like we have. Whatever happens, happens.
“As long as we play hard and play together, good things are gonna happen here.’’Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.