- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The rotation is intact again, Victor Martinez is back behind the plate, Dustin Pedroia is on the mend (even if it's not at warp speed like he'd hoped) and Jacoby Ellsbury is just days away from returning to the Boston Red Sox's lineup.
The bullpen? It may take Theo Epstein a couple of weeks or so beyond Saturday's trading deadline to piece together some help -- a waiver deal in August appears more likely than a trade now, according to one club source -- but if the Sox's starters can go deep into games, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon still offer Terry Francona a devastating one-two combo at the end, even though Papelbon ("It takes more than one punch to knock me out") says he plans to lay off the boxing analogies.
"From now on, it's all NASCAR," Papelbon said, "with me as the car."
Sticking to the auto-racing theme, then, the Red Sox just successfully navigated a caution lap, remaining within striking distance of the leaders in the AL East after a three-city, 10-game West Coast swing that could have had dire consequences.
Instead, after stumbling in Oakland, losing two out of three, and splitting a four-game series in Seattle that could have been a sweep if not for some late-inning implosions, the Sox took three straight from the Los Angeles Angels, including Wednesday's 7-3 triumph, leaving the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season on life support.
Francona has never been one to rate a road trip, or a homestand, believing with some justification that they are artificial constructs for evaluating a team's play. But given the perils the West Coast has represented for the Sox in the past -- they haven't had a winning record against AL teams on the Left Coast since 2004 -- and their short-handed condition at the outset of this trip, to return home 6-4 was no small accomplishment.
"You know what's nice? We have a long flight home and a day off tomorrow," Francona said.
It goes beyond that, of course.
There was Josh Beckett's first win Wednesday, his first since April 10, his second start since coming off the DL even more impressive than the first. There were the back-to-back strong starts by John Lackey, who set aside the disgust he felt at being booed upon his return to Anaheim to stick it to the Angels. Lackey took a no-hitter into the eighth in Seattle. Jon Lester had a perfect game going in Seattle until center fielder Eric Patterson dropped a liner. Collectively, Sox starters had a 2.89 ERA on the trip and went at least six innings in eight of the 10 games.
There were the four home runs the team hit Wednesday, including Marco Scutaro's tie-breaking grand slam in the eighth, on a trip in which the Sox were held to four or fewer runs in seven of the previous nine games. There were the four saves Papelbon had on the trip, including one in each of the first two games of this series.
And there was a terrific defensive play by second baseman Bill Hall in the eighth Wednesday to save the bullpen on a day that neither Papelbon nor Daniel Bard was available. Porous Sox defense led to all three Angels runs, Jeremy Hermida butchering a liner to left on what would have been the final out of the second and Hall losing a popup in the sun that fell for an infield double in the fifth.
"There are no glasses in the world that can block the sun," said Hall, whose shades were down but proved of little use. "None that we can wear on the baseball field anyway. Glasses aren't for looking directly in the sun. If it goes directly in the sun, you got no shot."
Scutaro, who enjoyed the best offensive day of his career by reaching base five times on two walks, two singles and his second career slam, said he thought Hall had no shot at the flare Juan Rivera hit just over the Sox infield with two on and two out in the eighth and Manny Delcarmen on the hill.
Hall didn't like his odds either. "Off the bat, I didn't think I was going to have a chance," he said. "Covered some ground in a hurry, I guess, jumped as high as I could, and was able to catch it."
The Angels did their part to assure the Sox of an enjoyable visit. Newly acquired ace Dan Haren took a Kevin Youkilis line drive off the forearm in the fifth inning Monday and was forced to leave the game. Wednesday's scheduled starter, Joel Pineiro, never made it to the mound. He strained an oblique muscle warming up and is expected to miss six to eight weeks. Mike Scioscia was forced to try to negotiate nine innings with his bullpen.
And the Angels' defense made one egregious mistake after another in this series. Wednesday's worst boo-boo was when newly acquired third baseman Alberto Callaspo double-clutched on Patterson's bunt with two on and no out in the eighth, giving Patterson just enough time to beat it out.
The next batter, Scutaro, hit a full-count changeup from Fernando Rodney into the left-field seats. Game over, and a fine payback for the pitch Rodney planted in Adrian Beltre's back Monday night after David Ortiz hit the second of his two home runs, Francona skirting FCC regulations only because the sound wasn't on while he gave Rodney an earful as TV cameras rolled.
"Every series, every game is important from now on," Scutaro said. "There's a long way to go, and we have to keep winning games."
The Sox began this trip 6½ games behind the first-place Yankees, 3½ behind the second-place Rays for the wild card. By sweeping the Angels, they allowed the Yankees to add just a half-game to their lead, while the Rays now hold a five-game edge. It will be no easy task to make up either deficit, though in a span of 11 days last month, when the Sox won eight of nine games, they wiped out a Rays five-game lead, then passed Tampa Bay eight days later before falling back.
And now they should have Ellsbury back to assist in that endeavor. Limited to just nine games by five fractured ribs and subsequent complications, Ellsbury is supposed to play nine innings for the Gulf Coast League Sox on Thursday in Fort Myers, Fla. Assuming that goes well, the plan, according to a source, is for Ellsbury to report to Pawtucket and play two to three games there before the Sox decide what the next step should be. Best-case scenario is that he is back in time for next weekend's four-game series against the Yankees in the Bronx.
The Sox's outfield could use the help. J.D. Drew said the strained left hamstring that caused him to miss the last two games should not keep him from playing Friday night against the Tigers in Fenway, but said the injury is likely to require close monitoring the rest of the season, even if Wednesday's MRI showed no bleeding, according to Francona.
Drew batted just .219 (7-for-32) on the trip. The outfield collectively batted .192 (23-for-120). Hermida, just off the DL himself (fractured ribs), was 2-for-17 with nine whiffs. Mike Cameron sat out Wednesday and batted just .154 (4-for-26) with no home runs and no RBIs. Darnell McDonald hit .167 (4-for-24). Patterson had three hits Wednesday, raising his average to .313 (5-for-16), or the picture would have been even grimmer.
Even if he doesn't hit right away, Ellsbury's defense will be a godsend. The returns of Beckett and Martinez were serendipitous in their timing for a resilient team whose survival instincts were showing signs of strain. And now comes Ellsbury, another weapon for a team that has already used 25 position players and 22 pitchers in its quest to win.
Impossible? Hey, even longtime adversaries Larry Lucchino and Scott Boras broke bread together at the ballpark this week. "Glasnost," cracked Sox chairman Tom Werner.
In this summer of endless challenges, the Sox keep meeting them. And now they're coming home, hope still intact.
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.
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