The Red Sox go for their second straight win away from home Tuesday night as they continue their three-game set against the AL-worst Mariners.
Boston (58-43) trails Tampa Bay by 1 1/2 games in the AL East, but would own a comfortable division lead if its play on the road was even mediocre. The Red Sox are 22-32 away from Fenway Park, and entered this series after suffering a three-game weekend sweep at the AL West-leading Los Angeles Angels.
Catcher Jason Varitek had not been helping Boston’s cause. The captain was batting .114 over his last 26 games entering Monday, but Francona kept him in the lineup. He responded with a two-run homer - his first since June 11 - to help the Red Sox to a 4-0 victory.
“I won’t hit for him. We need him. I believe in him. I will always believe in him. When times are tough, you don’t waver from that,” Francona explained prior to Monday’s game. “There’s a reason he’s got the captain thing there (on his uniform). That’s a big deal.
“If we want to get where we ultimately want to get, the faith in him will bear itself out.”
For Boston, playing the punchless Mariners (38-61) didn’t hurt. Seattle has lost three straight games and nine of 12 to increase its AL West deficit to 22 games - the largest for any team in the majors.
Despite eight hits off Red Sox starter Jon Lester, the Mariners couldn’t put a run across the plate.
Seattle’s task may not get much easier against Boston starter Daisuke Matsuzaka (10-1, 2.65 ERA). The Japanese right-hander has given up only one run in 23 1-3 innings over his last four starts. He defeated Baltimore in the final game before the All-Star break July 13, allowing five walks and four hits while striking out seven in six shutout innings of a 2-1 win.
“When he locates, he’s as good as there is,” Francona said.
Location has been Matsuzaka’s biggest problem, as he’s walked five or more batters in six of his 16 starts.
Matsuzaka is 1-1 with a 4.35 ERA in five career starts versus the Mariners. Countryman Ichiro Suzuki is 3-for-14 (.214) with a double, two walks and three strikeouts against Matsuzaka in their major league meetings.
The Mariners will also send a hot hand to the mound in reclamation project R.A. Dickey (2-4, 3.73). The knuckleballer, a Rule 5 acquisition from the Minnesota Twins who also spent time in the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 2007, has a 1.27 ERA in four starts and one relief appearance since June 24.
The relief appearance came Saturday, when he threw two scoreless innings against Cleveland. Dickey did not receive a decision in that outing or in his last start - July 10 at Oakland, where he limited the A’s to four hits and four walks over seven shutout innings in Seattle’s 3-2 loss in 11 innings.