If you glanced at the Red Sox schedule before the season, what immediately hit you were the first 13 games — all against American League East opponents — and how daunting that looked.
That stretch ended on Patriots Day with a 3-2 walkoff win over the Tampa Bay Rays, when Mike Napoli’s double off the wall scored Dustin Pedroia from first in the bottom of the ninth. And the Red Sox are in first place in the AL East with an 8-4 record (there was a rainout).
The Red Sox won two out of three vs. the Yankees, two out of three against the Blue Jays, lost two out of three to the Orioles, then swept three from the Rays.
Except for the Orioles, the Sox caught the other teams on a downturn. The Yankees are depleted with injuries to four All-Stars, the ballyhooed Blue Jays have so far been a bust, and the Rays have had problems scoring (three runs in 28 innings in this series).
“It’s encouraging to get out of the gate this way,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “We were hoping to get out to a good start and to play this well this early in the season, and to get the outstanding starting pitching we’ve had is very encouraging.”
The one alarm ringing loudly is the closer position, as the Sox blew two ninth-inning leads on this homestand.
Joel Hanrahan blew a two-run lead against the Orioles Wednesday night, and it has since been revealed that he is battling a hamstring injury.
On Monday, the Red Sox turned to Andrew Bailey to protect a 2-1 lead for Ryan Dempster, who went seven innings and gave up just two hits, but Bailey coughed up the lead in the ninth. The strength of the team, at least on paper, was the bullpen. In Hanrahan and Bailey, the Red Sox essentially have closers pitching the eighth and ninth innings.
Yet both Farrell and Dempster opted to dwell on the positive — that after Bailey allowed the run, he held the status quo and Boston came back to win it.
“I’ve been there,” said Dempster, a former closer. “When you give up the lead, the big thing is to keep the game tied right there, and Andrew did an outstanding job of doing that. We were able to win the game because he held the game where it was.”
The Red Sox have been missing their centerpiece hitter, David Ortiz, who is on a rehab assignment in Pawtucket, trying to come back from two sore heels.
In the meantime, the Red Sox are holding their own.
Their starting pitching, with a 1.99 ERA and 84 strikeouts, has been the best in baseball after ranking 25th last season. Clay Buchholz, who flirted with a no-hitter Sunday, and Dempster are the first Red Sox pitchers to strike out at least 10 batters while allowing two or fewer hits in consecutive games, according to Elias.
Dempster, who was signed to a two-year, $26 million deal in the offseason, has essentially become Boston’s third starter. In acquiring Dempster for that type of money, the Red Sox were hoping to get a veteran leader for the staff who could give them 200 innings.
So far, he looks to be that guy.
After Jon Lester and Buchholz spun superb outings in the first two games of this series, Dempster continued the trend, with 10 strikeouts in his seven innings. Red Sox starters have allowed two or fewer runs in the last eight games.
“I think it’s contagious,” said Dempster. “When you watch Jon and Clay go out there and do what they do, you don’t want to be the one to go out and break that up. You want to do your part, and I think everyone on our staff feels that way right now.”
The Red Sox scored in the first inning when Jacoby Ellsbury tripled to center and came home on Shane Victorino’s ground ball. After Evan Longoria tied it with a long smash over the Green Monster in the fourth inning, Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit a lefthanded homer to right on an 0-and-2 pitch from Jeremy Hellickson in the fifth to give Boston the lead.
Dempster was again dazzling, fooling hitters with an array of fastballs and splitters down in the zone. He also benefited from a great defensive play in the sixth inning by shortstop Stephen Drew, who dived for a ball up the middle and threw out Longoria (although the replay showed he may have beaten it out). That play prevented a run.
“I knew I had to dive for it,” Drew said. “I didn’t have my balance when I made the throw, so I had no idea whether I had enough on the throw to make the play.”
After throwing 101 pitches, 63 for strikes, Dempster handed a 2-1 lead to Koji Uehara.
Uehara has been superb in his setup role, but with Hanrahan ineffective — and now out with the hamstring injury — the Red Sox turned to Bailey to close.
Desmond Jennings singled off Bailey to open the ninth inning and stole second base. The Rays had been 0 for 18 with runners in scoring position in the series but Ben Zobrist broke the streak when he singled in Jennings with the tying run.
Bailey settled down, getting the next three batters to hold the score at 2-2.
“You never want to blow the save right there, but you have to keep your concentration and make sure you don’t allow any more runs,” Bailey said.
In the bottom of the ninth, Pedroia drew a one-out walk against Joel Peralta, and Napoli came through.
The Red Sox not only survived the AL East test but appear to be buoyed by an exciting stretch of baseball.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.