Last place never felt so good.
Somehow, some way, the hated chicken-and-beer team of last September and the annoying Golfgate gang of last month has been replaced by a lovable bunch of overachievers who laugh in the face of injuries.
The trend continued Wednesday with a 6-4 win over the Detroit Tigers on a night when the Red Sox overcame a 3-0 deficit and hit three home runs (David Ortiz, Will Middlebrooks, and Kevin Youkilis).
Matt Albers picked up the win in relief and Alfredo Aceves earned his 13th save before 37,195 at Fenway.
The Sox, though still in last place in the American League East, are now only 2 1/2 games behind the division-leading Orioles.
“You can’t let injuries overtake you,’’ said Ortiz, who went 2 for 4, including his 12th homer of the season and the 390th of his career. He also drove in two runs and improved his average to .323 with 12 homers and 35 RBIs. “It seems like every time we turn around we have another one, but you have to be ready with other guys who can step in and play at a high level, and that’s what we have on this team.’’
About the close standings, Ortiz said, “Got to keep playing well. Every team in the league seems to be in the same boat. Everyone has injuries and is trying to survive just like we are. We have more I guess. But we see where Travis Hafner goes down for Cleveland and Doc Halladay for the Phillies. Those are big injuries, but you have to be able to keep playing hard and don’t use that as an excuse.’’
While Jon Lester has sometimes stumbled in his quest to be an ace, he picked himself up after falling behind, 3-0, in the third. The lefthander kept the Tigers in quicksand for the next three-plus innings before they got to him in the seventh for a run to tie the score, 4-4.
Lester thought he had his best stuff of the year.
“It’s frustrating sometimes when the results don’t match the stuff you have,’’ he said.
On a night when manager Bobby Valentine felt his bullpen was a little short, with one out and a man on second in the seventh he asked Lester to get one more out. Lester struck out the lefthanded hitting Quintin Berry.
Albers came on, and while he allowed the tying run on a Miguel Cabrera double, the Sox were able to take the lead in the bottom of the inning on an Adrian Gonzalez double that scored Daniel Nava. Youkilis added a solo shot in the eighth and Aceves pitched a scoreless ninth.
One wouldn’t think comebacks would be the norm in a lineup without Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Dustin Pedroia, who are injured.
But here was another one.
Ortiz continues to hit lefties, blasting his sixth homer vs. a lefty when he connected off Drew Smyly with Gonzalez aboard in the fourth.
“See the ball and hit it,’’ said Ortiz about his prowess vs. lefthanders. “There are a lot of tough lefties in the game now. Seventy percent of the time when I come up with men on base late in games, I’m facing a lefty. You have to hang in there and swing at your pitch and don’t try to do too much with it.’’
In the same inning, Youkilis singled and came home on Middlebrooks’s sixth homer of the season, giving the Red Sox a 4-3 lead.
In addition to driving in the winning run, Gonzalez, who went 2 for 4, nearly made a nice sliding catch of his old Quad Cites teammate Cabrera’s double in the seventh.
“They had me playing deep, because if you give up the double, then that scores two runs,’’ Gonzalez said. “So I’m already playing pretty close to the warning track, that’s why that was such a tough ball for me. I’m not fast at all. I’ve got a lot more room to cover; [Ryan] Sweeney probably has that one standing up.’’
Said Middlebrooks, “This team is playing as a team right now. Everyone is trying to do their part. You see Adrian is going out there playing right field and everyone trying to do things to make up for some of the injuries we have. It’s fun to see it coming together.’’
Nava, who is getting quite adept at playing the wall in left field, took Alex Avila’s liner off the wall in left-center leading off the seventh and threw Avila out at second, aided by a diving tag by Nick Punto.
Nava practiced taking balls off the wall very close to that same spot before the game.
“I make it a point every day to take balls off the wall, because in my mind you can’t take enough of them,’’ he said. “The ball comes off it differently at times. It just so happened the ball came off the wall similar to how I practiced it before the game so I was able to retrieve the ball quickly. I wish I’d made a better throw to second base, but Nick made a great play to catch the ball behind him and turn and tag the runner.’’
That was a big runner the Sox got off the bases for Lester, whose pitch count was well over 100.
After Laird doubled to left-center on Lester’s 116th pitch, Valentine came out and it appeared he was going to take Lester out. But he left him in and the lefty struck out Berry with a 94 m.p.h. fastball for the second out.
In his 6 2/3 innings, Lester allowed four runs on 10 hits, striking out seven with no walks. He ended up at 120 pitches.
The Sox, who didn’t seem interested at times a year ago, are now on the top step of the dugout watching the games closely, cheering for teammates. Little by little players are embracing Valentine’s methods, and the fact that he’s intense and wants to win.
In the first inning, Lester allowed consecutive singles to Danny Worth, Cabrera, and Prince Fielder. Detroit got a run on Delmon Young’s fielder’s choice. In the third, Lester allowed a leadoff triple off the left-center wall by Berry, who scored on Worth’s sacrifice fly.
That time Lester couldn’t hold the damage to a run, as Cabrera doubled. After Cabrera advanced to third on a wild pitch, Fielder got him in with a groundout to third. Middlebrooks looked briefly at the runner as he fielded the ball, but not long enough to keep Cabrera from breaking for home and scoring.
“There was really nothing I could do,’’ Middlebrooks said. “I looked the runner over and froze him and then he took off as soon as I threw to first. It was a great play by him.’’