LOS ANGELES – The Boston Red Sox had arrived here looking worn out and maybe a little cranky, the former being the nature of the baseball season, the latter the result of sticking one's fastball into another man's business.
A three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers might've been sexy to television viewers and press box poets, but in the clubhouse, the men who had seen six cities in 2½ weeks weren't much in the mood for romance. By Friday night they'd lost 10 times in 17 games, and the Tampa Bay Rays had caught them again, and their best pitcher was en route to Wappingers Falls, N.Y.
Manager John Farrell's jaw was taut. About the best he could say of what many believed would be a make-or-break period for the Red Sox: "We've kept our head above water." David Ortiz, their leader, was ranting about a newspaper story, but not the story itself, just that it had become such a big deal and, honestly, he didn't give a "flyin' [squirrel]" about it anyway, except he was still sort of shouting at the time.
It's not like Dodger Stadium would be any kind of a finish line, either. On the other side of L.A., running into the final days of September, the Red Sox had nine games against the Baltimore Orioles (not all in a row), seven against the New York Yankees, three against the Tampa Bay Rays, three against the Detroit Tigers and two – in the final week of the season – in Colorado, where weird happens.
So they'd become this wonderful story over four or five months, after general manager Ben Cherington had appeared to put together a team based on eHarmony profiles, except they could damn well play too, and they'd scored more runs than anybody in baseball and they could pitch some. A quick rebuild and a new man on the top step and the return of John Lackey had served to air out the 2012 stink, the Bobby V stink, and the Red Sox weren't just legit, they were legit in the AL East, which still means something.
In L.A., the last thing they had time for was a heartfelt retrospective on The Trade that Altered Two Franchises. It was enough that the Dodgers were in first place with Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Nick Punto and no wins from Josh Beckett, while the Red Sox were in first place without them (or their contracts) and the same number of wins from Josh Beckett. It's just that the Dodgers' lead in the NL West was so much more cushy, which tends to happen when you hardly ever lose for two months. And the Red Sox looked a bit like a team that was starting to stagger, even considering the tough schedule, even considering the Rays doing what the Rays do, and especially when the Red Sox had Lackey throw a three-hitter over eight innings at Dodger Stadium on Friday night – and lose.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to beat those guys," Crawford said afterward. "I'm glad I got a great team behind me."
Huh. That could have been taken a lot of ways, which may have been Crawford's intent. There were two games left in the series, but it looked like the Dodgers had taken the Red Sox's best punch, and that's about where things got interesting for the Red Sox, which is what makes the Red Sox so interesting. Over the next two days, Jon Lester was brilliant, like he was in April, and Jake Peavy was even better. As a franchise, you don't trade a talent like Jose Iglesias for a pitcher who'll stand out there on national television on a Sunday night and get beat by the other guy's No. 5, in this case Chris Capuano.
They won't be the two most important games of the season for the Red Sox, not with September out there and four teams in the AL East separated by six games in the loss column. Neither are they insignificant, because they immediately followed Ortiz's observation that fellow veteran Ryan Dempster had done the wrong thing hitting Alex Rodriguez, which was immediately followed by a very difficult loss. Seasons turn on less.
And maybe that's the beauty of what Cherington has put together here, because a less sturdy clubhouse might have come apart. Too much drama. The manager was put in a terrible position, to back the starting pitcher who'd taken it upon himself to serve justice to an opposing player, or back the undisputed alpha dog in his clubhouse. And he'd already thrown in for Dempster in the moment.
"I don't think the comments David [made] would have any lingering effects in our clubhouse," Farrell said.
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In what has become a difficult place to play, against a team that hadn't lost a series in 2½ months and was feeling bulletproof, the Red Sox pitched better, caught the ball, put up some runs, ducked Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and got on with their season.
"It shows the caliber of ballclub we have," Peavy said on his way back to Boston. "We're on the same level as those guys."
That may be true. By winning two of three in L.A., they're more likely to find out.