- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Ron Johnson, the baseball lifer spending his first season as the Red Sox's first-base coach, said that all his years in the Sox system have taught him to trust the judgments of general manager Theo Epstein.
"These guys know what they're doing," Johnson said. "I'm a believer. I wouldn't bet against them. If they tell me the sun's going to be a different color tomorrow, I'm in."
We can reliably report that the sun will not change its hue this morning, but the outlook has grown considerably brighter for the Red Sox after they completed a three-game sweep of Tampa Bay by obliterating the Rays, 11-3, Wednesday night at Tropicana Field.
Adrian Beltre drove in six runs, something he hadn't done since he was 21, with two home runs, a triple and a single. The torrid David Ortiz hit his ninth home run of the month. And John Lackey played a mean game of dodgeball (the Rays were 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position) as the Sox made it a season-high five wins in a row and eight of their past nine.
"Being the new guy here, I want to see us roll," Johnson said. "Then we go to New York and lose that game [down 5-0, ahead 9-7, lose 11-9] and we've got Minnesota, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay coming up.
"But what's really neat is when you see these guys do what they do, they're pretty good," he said.
It's third place with a bullet for the Sox, who passed Toronto to move into third place for the first time since April 29. Boston trails the second-place Yankees by just two games after being 6½ back a little more than a week ago and is just 5½ games behind the Rays. Although the Rays still have the best record in baseball, they took a direct hit to the ego this week and lost 2½ games in a single night to the Yanks, who took two from the Twins. New York is now just 3½ games out of first.
Parse things a little further, as the ESPN Stats & Information staff did, and you discover that since April 20 -- the night that Terry Francona pinch hit for Ortiz the first time -- the Sox have the best record in baseball, 23-12, a half-game better than the Rays (22-12).
"I think as much chaos as we had going on early, everybody needed a chance to settle in," said Jason Varitek, the captain who is also the catcher du jour until Victor Martinez can slip on a pair of spikes over his bruised big left toe.
Is the chaos over, with Ortiz quashing the early-retirement talk, Beltre bashing the ball and the starting pitching running off a streak in which it's 7-1 with a 1.60 ERA in the past eight games?
"I think we face adversity in this game all the time, but you have to give us a chance before you judge a team," Varitek said. "Allow them to play a little bit and see what happens. If you have all the parts rolling and things are working well, and [the chaos] is still going on, then we have to start passing some judgments."
Here's a judgment Varitek was only too happy to pass on: Beltre, who raised his average to .341, a level he has known only once in his career (in 2004, when he hit .334 with the Dodgers), also needed a little time to adjust after coming over from Seattle.
"He's been real good," Varitek said. "He's gotten to settle in offensively, and he's a pretty amazing athlete. Not just the way he plays third, but he runs, he's a physical specimen, he has an unbelievable arm. Pretty impressive."
Having Ortiz morph back into Big Papi, the man who on Monday night completed the majors' first 30-second home run trot around the bases (according to a website that tracks such things), then outsprinted a rapidly approaching Kevin Youkilis to the plate on Beltre's two-run triple Wednesday night, has done much to ease the chaos.
"You know what? You can feel it," Johnson said of Papi's resurrected presence. "It's out there on the field. He's going up there now, and I'm up at first base saying, 'I hope I don't get [expletive] crushed."
After losing two of three to the Yankees in Fenway Park and allowing double-digit runs in both defeats, the Red Sox were looking at a stretch of 16 games against six teams that all had better records than they did and three of them -- the Twins, Phillies and Rays -- all leading their divisions. Even though it was still early, it was a test run for whether the Red Sox were a legitimate contender or third wheel in a division in which the Rays had gotten off to a historic start.
The Sox's response? They won 11 of the 16 games, took four series, split another and lost one, and brought the planets back into alignment in the AL East.
"I know if we play the way we think we can play, we'll be OK," Francona said.
The starting rotation, even with Josh Beckett in and out with back problems, went 10-3 with three no-decisions and a 3.40 ERA, throwing in two one-hitters in a four-game span. Ortiz went off. So did Beltre and Youkilis. The defense tightened considerably, with Beltre mocking early doubts about his glove with a nightly menu of highlight plays.
"We had to find ways to win," Varitek said. "including the ones we're not supposed to. We come back in New York the first game, and it didn't quite happen. We come back the second game, it finally happens."
The Sox, down 5-0 a second straight night to the Bombers, did the improbable and rallied again and this time won it. They've lost just once since.
"This team was slowly getting better, but we're still geared around our pitching," Varitek said.
"We had a lot of horrible starts early. Some of that was weather, circumstance, one pitch away; some days we didn't play real good defense; some days we didn't hit worth a lick."
That has now turned around, and the Sox return home for a seven-game homestand against two teams, Kansas City and Oakland, that on paper pose a lesser challenge than the ones the Sox have faced almost nonstop the past three weeks.
"Just shows you how utterly unpredictable this frigging game is," Sox CEO Larry Lucchino said earlier in the day, "no matter how smart you think you are or how experienced."
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
1dKevin Van Valkenburg