This was the tipping point. The Red Sox were ready to cough up first place. They were finally going to validate the naysayers. They were going to lose for the seventh time in nine games. They were going to lose a fourth straight game for the first time all season. They were going to fall two games behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the loss column.
It was teed up. The reeling Red Sox were counting on hard-luck John Lackey, the man who never gets any run support, the man who hadn’t won a game in more than a month. The hitless-wonder locals (anybody remember the last home run by a Boston batter?) were facing Hiroki Kuroda, the 38-year-old Japanese ace who’d allowed only five runs in his previous seven starts, a stretch of 48 innings that produced four wins, two no-decisions, and a single loss.
The staggering Sox were doomed in their nationally televised Saturday afternoon clash against the resurgent Yankees. Boston’s only hope was the ancient “reverse lock” theory.
And then the Red Sox did what they have done all season. They shucked off the doubters, went about their business, racked up 11 hits (good for five runs) off the Yankee starter, and cranked out a 6-1 victory. Kuroda hadn’t given up as many as four runs since June 30. Beating the Yankee ace, the Red Sox stopped the bleeding, held on to first place, and drove another nail into the dense heads of the doubters.
This was a good win. It was another demonstration of the resilience of this team. Every time you think you are out, they pull you back in.
The mission at the start of this season was to stop the hatred. In the wake of September 2011, followed by the worst season in 47 years, the Sox just wanted you to like them again.
Now for the gravy. The house money. The Red Sox have been so good, so worthy , we have gotten greedy. They have been in first place all summer and we assume they are a playoff team. They have exceeded all expectations and have a chance to win their division for only the third time since 1995.
There have been four or five junctures this season when it appeared we were finally going to face reality with this crew. On multiple occasions, the Sox looked ready to drop like a stone — descend to their rightful place. But every time they’ve responded with a big-boy victory. They stand tall and give us a peak performance.
Saturday was one of those days. Lackey didn’t have swing-and-miss stuff, but he smothered Alex Rodriguez and friends on six hits (one run) over 6⅔ innings for his first win since before the All-Star break. When he was pulled in the seventh, he walked off to Lindbergh-esque cheers. Imagine.
More than any player, Lackey represents the change in perception of these Sox. He was vilified in 2011 and even in 2012 when he didn’t play (“Why is he on the bench?”). He was the overpaid, out-of-shape, chicken-and-beer guy who showed up his teammates and seemed wholly unhappy with the Boston baseball experience.
Now he is the guy you’d probably choose if the Sox were involved in a one-game playoff (still a strong possibility). He is a lean, hungry warrior who Does His Job.
Lackey on the ovation: “It’s nice for sure. And the guys in the dugout standing up for me . . . I was more focused on my teammates.’’
And how about a shout-out for David Ortiz? The man is simply amazing. The Yankees have the easily mocked, cheatin’ and lyin’ Rodriguez. Here in Boston, we have Big Papi, who Saturday crushed his 24th home run and continues to be the best American League hitter this side of Miguel Cabrera. Last week in Toronto, Ortiz hit a home run that left the bat at 118.8 miles per hour. According to ESPN Stats, that represents the 37-year-old Ortiz’s top bat speed in seven years. Clearly, all the hard work is paying off.
The Sox are the only team in baseball not to have not lost four straight this season.
“This has been a team that has come in every day with a very positive attitude,’’ said manager John Farrell. “Today was business as usual . . . We have shown to be a very resilient group. That’s another reason why we haven’t gone into a prolonged down period. We’re a good team.’’
They are a good team. They have played 125 of 162 games and they are 21 games over .500 and they are in first place with 37 games to play. This season is a gift. It is a gift that keeps on giving. And every time we think the Red Sox are going down, they stand up and prove us wrong.Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy