ANAHEIM, Calif. – It's Friday afternoon and the Manny of the Hour is dead out on the couch in the visitors' clubhouse, his toes pointed straight in the air, his hair pulled back under what looks to be a combination do-rag/headband, his head lolling to the sound of whatever's pumping through his iPod.
Now he's reported to have been fined $100,000 – the Red Sox actually fined him $10,000, but what's an extra zero among friends and wild-guessers – and accused of tanking an at-bat against Mariano Rivera last Sunday in protest, all stemming from the day he snapped on the team's kindly traveling secretary. When Manny shoved him, it turned out, the secretary did indeed travel quite a distance.
Manny Outdoing Even Manny also has some misgivings about the way the front office is approaching his expiring contract/option year/contract extension, whichever comes first, which annoyed owner John Henry to no end, but the fact is, as long as Manny gets his butt off that couch by 7 o'clock, he's going to hit and drive in runs and lead the Red Sox to another AL East title.
The rest, well, that's of little interest in this clubhouse, and of even less interest beneath Manny's curls.
Right around, oh, Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, the Red Sox became that team that plays ball in a vacuum, mostly winning and sometimes losing while the world goes all hysterical around them, though Manny has been known to take the occasional swipe at, say, Kevin Youkilis. Granted, it can be an imperfect vacuum.
They've also become the team that often does what it wants when it wants, which would explain its past two ALCSs, along with the events leading to the All-Star break. Down their DH, their shortstop and any offense at all from their catcher, the Red Sox made up 5½ games in a week on the Tampa Bay Rays, as if to remind everyone there's a difference between a heart-warming story and a ballclub that's won for a living.
"Five games, that's a pretty big gap," Mike Lowell said. "Then it seemed like in just a span of two or three days it put us right back in the hunt. It just shows you things can turn quickly."
While the Rays were hurtling back to earth (or at least to a place where they could see the planet), losing every game for a week, the Red Sox were sweeping the Minnesota Twins, who had hardly lost for a month, and the Baltimore Orioles, who are average but stubborn. So, they were 5-1 by a combined score of 42-19 – just when it was beginning to look as though they might actually have some serious issues in the East.
Not only that, but the Red Sox have survived the absence of slugger David Ortiz, who hasn't played since May 31 and just Thursday began the minor-league portion of his recovery from a torn wrist tendon. Fortunately, manager Terry Francona is getting minute-by-minute updates from Pawtucket.
"He called me after his first at-bat," Francona said Friday afternoon, while Manny lay unconscious.
According to his rendering, the conversation went thusly:
Ortiz: "Hey, I just popped up."
Francona: "I don't care."
Ortiz: "But, I felt great!"
He's due back in a week. Meantime, the Red Sox are said to be educating themselves on replacements if Ortiz is set back – Mark Teixeira is a long shot, but not impossible – and are trolling for a catcher, first to back up Jason Varitek and potentially to replace him, if they are unable to re-sign their captain when the season is over.
Over the All-Star break, Chipper Jones looked over the Red Sox's division and came to the conclusion the Rays probably didn't have the life experiences to hang with the Red Sox and perhaps not the Yankees, not yet anyway. Personally, I go with starting pitching and deep bullpens over life experiences, but Jones has seen more than his share of pennant races.
"I don't think the Rays are not going to feel optimistic," Francona countered.
As for his Red Sox, and their experience advantage, Francona shrugged and said, "You always think you can win. That's why you can do this. I would hope that experience helps. If it doesn't, we've done something wrong. But, it doesn't guarantee you will win. … You handle whatever you're supposed to handle."
For the moment, the Angels weren't one of them. The Red Sox's favorite October saps came out of the break hitting, ran Clay Buchholz before the fifth inning was done Friday night and won 11-3 to nudge the Red Sox back into second place, a half-game behind the Rays. Despite plenty of decent at-bats and solid contact against Angels ace John Lackey, they didn't do much against him, either. But this was a far more important game for Lackey than for the Red Sox, particularly if the Angels intend to pitch him at the front of their rotation in October. In 11 previous regular-season starts against the Red Sox, Lackey had a 6.27 ERA and had lost six of seven decisions. And, of course, in Game 1 of the last Division Series, Lackey allowed four runs in the first three innings and the Angels were never in the game against Josh Beckett.
Anyway, none of this would end before we heard one more time from Manny, who singled in the second and homered in the fourth against Lackey. On a shallow sixth-inning fly to left field, the game done but for the details, Manny charged in and cannon-balled at the falling baseball. Yes, cannon-balled. First he lost his hat, then his bearings, and somehow ended up sitting on the baseball as the crowd roared. He'd turned a 150-foot flare into a triple, laughing all the way.
Perfect. The Red Sox will be fine.