- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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DETROIT -- They endured three rain delays, a rainout and a day-night doubleheader on getaway day, which means they will be returning home to Boston in those short hours between last call and first cup of coffee.
But on the misery index of forgettable trips, this one didn't register. Not when the Red Sox came home as sole occupants of first place in the American League East and show every intention of moving into the neighborhood permanently.
The Red Sox lost one pitched battle to Cleveland and Asdrubal Cabrera, the hottest-hitting shortstop in the American League and the man with the Latinized name of the brother of Hannibal, the guy who employed elephants to beat Rome at its own game.
They lost another Sunday night, 3-0, to Detroit and Justin Verlander, who earlier this month threw the second no-hitter of his career and whose 100-mph fastball could be used to calibrate the speedometers of Detroit's most famous exports. Verlander threw 132 pitches in 7 2/3 innings Sunday night, a career high and the most pitches thrown by anyone in the American League this season. His last pitch, ball four to Jacoby Ellsbury, rang up triple digits on the radar gun.
"I've just always had the ability to stay strong, or get stronger, as the game goes along,'' Verlander said. "At that point, I wasn't holding anything back.''
Verlander performed the way most prized aces do, coming up big as a stopper when his team needed him most.
"Verlander had a lot to say about the outcome,'' said Sox manager Terry Francona, adding that he thought Dustin Pedroia's drive that died on the warning track in the sixth had a chance to leave the premises for a two-run home run that would have tied the score. "We made him work, but again, he's one of the best in the league.''
Otherwise, the Sox were pretty much unbeatable, taking two of three from the Indians, three of four from the Tigers, and winning the most lopsided back-to-back road games in their 110-year history.
Sunday afternoon's game was won when David Ortiz had a pinch-hit home run, something he hadn't done since his first home run with the Sox eight years ago. Carl Crawford had back-to-back four-hit games and finally moved up to a more respectable place in the batting order (though he had a quiet Sunday, 0-for-7). Jacoby Ellsbury is stealing bases at a clip close to his league-leading 70-steal pace of 2009, and homered in consecutive games.
And Adrian Gonzalez, though he too cooled off on Sunday (0-for-6 with a sacrifice fly), has had a month that is second only to the Bruins in winning the hearts and minds of Boston sports fans.
But the trend that foretold success more than any other on this trip was the performance of the starting rotation, which not only weathered the loss of two starters to the disabled list, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, but actually thrived in their absence.
Clay Buchholz, pitching with a stiff back, gave up three runs in six innings Sunday afternoon and was not involved in the decision, the win going to reliever Matt Albers and the save to Jonathan Papelbon (No. 10) after Ortiz's home run in the ninth. Josh Beckett gave up two runs in the first inning Sunday night and nothing more in his six innings, but Verlander made that lead stand up in Sunday's nightcap.
"You can't stake their guy to a lead like that,'' said Beckett, who was charged with his first loss in 10 starts, dating back to the 3-1 defeat he took in his first start of the season on April 5. "If it's one run, it's one thing, but he's tough enough without staking him to a couple of runs.''
Beckett acknowledged he left some pitches up in the first inning, when the Tigers strung together a full-count walk to Andy Dirks, Brennan Boesch's double and Miguel Cabrera's single to jump out to a 2-0 lead. Beckett walked five, and his only clean inning was his last, but he didn't bend. He just finished runner-up to Verlander on a night the Sox managed just four hits and advanced only one baserunner as far as third.
But over the last nine games dating to May 21, Buchholz is the only Sox starter to have allowed as many as three earned runs. A rotation buoyed by the additions of Alfredo Aceves and Tim Wakefield in the last week has a 2.06 ERA in that stretch, having allowed just 13 earned runs in 56 2/3 innings. They've also allowed just four home runs, including the two surrendered by Buchholz on Sunday.
"We've been really consistent," Francona said between games Sunday. "If your pitching is the one thing that's a constant, you're always going to have a chance. The thing that's really helped us is we lose the two guys in our rotation and we add the two and they give us four really good starts. That was huge. We didn't [mess] our bullpen up and we won games."
Now the Sox return home to face the Chicago White Sox, who just lost three in a row to the Toronto Blue Jays, are seven games under .500, and have a manager, Ozzie Guillen, who comes to town in full lather. Sunday night, Guillen was furiously tweeting his objections to the way his remarks about the team's fans were portrayed by reporters covering the team. Not sure how you put a positive spin on such comments as, "As soon as you leave the ballpark they don't care about you anymore. They don't. The monuments, the statue they got, they [urinate] on it when they're drunk.'' But Guillen insisted in his tweets that he was misquoted.
"What a hell I going to say bad thing about white sox fan they are behind me all my carrer a less most of then,'' read one of his tweets, reprinted here in its original form. Perhaps he will disclaim ownership of this and other tweets, but that would be out of character for him. Controversy, however, isn't.
The White Sox are followed by the Oakland Athletics, who have a pitching staff that has the best earned run average in the league but an offense that has produced the fewest home runs in the league (28). The Sox, who have won 13 of their last 16 games overall and eight of their past nine in the Fens, have a chance, while the Yankees are on the West Coast, to build on their lead before going to New York next week for a three-game set against the Bombers.
The homestand opens Monday night with Jon Lester looking to add to his league-leading total of seven wins. Reliever Bobby Jenks, who threw an inning Sunday in Pawtucket, should be rejoining the club no later than Tuesday. Lackey, who is scheduled to make a rehab start Tuesday in Pawtucket, may be back five days thereafter. In the meantime, Aceves and Wakefield, the unlikely saviors of the 'pen, are lined up to face the White Sox.
"We've just got everybody throwing the ball really well,'' Buchholz said. "It's fun to be a part of because you try to up the guy that pitched before you. Just a little game within the game for us.''
As for the bigger game? Francona loathes evaluating a trip or homestand when it ends, but he offered this much Sunday night.
"The last game is what we care about,'' he said, "and we lost. We're playing better baseball, we gave ourselves a chance, and we're getting home to play. Soon.''
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
20hAndrew Marchand and Wallace Matthews