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Red Sox rotation starting to roll 05.05.10 at 11:51 pm ET
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The Red Sox entered the year believing that their starting rotation would be one of the team’s greatest strengths. With John Lackey added to the group of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield, the team had visions of banging out quality starts one after another.

Yet in April, the performance didn’t cooperate with the script. Sox starters ended April with a 4.86 ERA (10th among 14 AL teams), a .280 batting average against (13th) and .352 OBP against (13th) and an uninspired 6-6 record. Yet in the final days of the month, the staff strung together some performances that may have represented a turning point.

Starting with an eight-inning, one-run effort by Clay Buchholz on April 27 against the Blue Jays, the Sox rotation has lived up to its preseason billing. Over the last eight games, including Wednesday’s 3-1 win over the Angels (recap), in which John Lackey turned in seven dominant innings (2H, 1R, 14 groundball outs, 4 strikeouts), the rotation has now gone 5-1 with a 2.82 ERA and a 42-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 54.1 innings.

“We have five guys in the rotation who can do that every day,” said third baseman Adrian Beltre. “Lackey was outstanding today, and of course he’s been like that throughout the year. We knew that the first four weeks we saw of our pitching staff was on and off. It was going to change. We expect the guys can hopefully stay healthy and keep doing that.”

Lackey, in fact, has been the linchpin of the rotation to date. He is 3-1 with a 3.89 ERA, and in his six starts, he has delivered five quality outings of at least six innings and three or fewer earned runs, tied for the most in the American League. On Wednesday, he struggled with his command early, throwing just 22 of his first 41 pitches for strikes, before he settled into a dominating groove. He retired 13 of the last 14 batters he faced, and featured perhaps his best fastball of the season, both in terms of velocity (he touched 95) and later, command.

“He looked so relaxed on the mound and when he throws the ball, it gets on you,” said catcher Victor Martinez. “I can tell you as a hitter facing him, that’s what makes him so tough. He looks like he doesn’t even try, and when he throws the ball, you’ve got to be ready to hit.”

On Wednesday, the Angels weren’t ready to handle that challenge. Lackey, meanwhile, proved more than up to the task of separating the sentiment of facing his former team for the first time from the responsibility of pitching his game.

“I heard dugout chirping a little bit but it was probably [Jered Weaver] messing with me,” Lackey chuckled after the game. “They know how I am when I get between the lines. It’s business time. I’ll be friends with you later.”

After the second inning, “probably had my best fastball command that I’ve had this season, for sure. That was encouraging. Then kind of added pitches as the game went along.”

More and more, the Sox rotation is living up to its billing come business time. And with that, the team has now claimed wins in six of its last nine contests to pull itself back up to .500. If the starters can sustain their current run, then the team can foresee bigger things in the coming weeks.

“We need to be a lot higher than .500,” said Lackey. “This is the starting point. We need to keep moving.”

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Closing Time: Red Sox 3, Angels 1 05.05.10 at 9:48 pm ET
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After David Ortiz went 0-for-4 with a pair of punchouts and a pair of double play balls on Tuesday, many people had had enough. A chorus of critics was prepared to conclude the tank had emptied on the once-great hitter.

But Red Sox manager Terry Francona resisted that chorus. He noted Ortiz had a career .391 average, .483 OBP and .783 slugging mark in 29 career plate appearances against Angels starter Joel Piniero. Given that success, as well as the near-certainty that Ortiz will sit on Thursday against Angels left-hander Scott Kazmir, Francona decided to stick with his embattled DH.

“I understand David’s having a tough time,” Francona explained before the game. “He’s hitting almost .400 off this guy and Kazmir is tomorrow. [The Sox are] trying to put players in a position where they can succeed and trying to put our team in a position where [it] can succeed and trying to do it at the same time and sometimes.”

That faith, for a night, was rewarded. Ortiz reached base in all three of his plate appearances against Piniero, collecting a single, an opposite-field homer (his fourth of the year, on an 83-mph changeup) and a walk, to help lead the Sox to a 3-1 victory. (Recap.) Boston is now back at .500 for the season.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

–For the first time this season, Ortiz reached base in three or more of his plate appearances.

John Lackey dominated his former team. Facing the Angels for the first time as a member of the Red Sox, he put together one of his most dominant lines of the season, despite some control struggles in the early innings. Lackey relied heavily on a fastball that registered as high as 95 mph to overpower his former club. He permitted just one run on two hits in seven innings, getting 13 groundball outs and four strikeouts. He registered his fifth quality start of the year, tied for the American League lead.

Adrian Beltre was outstanding in the field and at the plate. At the plate, he collected three hits — a pair of singles and a solo blast to dead center, for his second homer of the season — and is now hitting .435 in his last 12 games. His work in the field was almost as significant. Beltre ducked a broken bat that nearly impaled him to start a 5-4-3 double play in the top of the third, and later made a terrific pick of a ball on a short hop.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

–Red Sox third base coach Tim Bogar continued his challenging adjustment to his new job. With runners on first and second and one out in the bottom of the seventh, he waved Marco Scutaro home on a Kevin Youkilis single to left. Angels left fielder Hideki Matsui‘s throw beat Scutaro to the plate by several feet, and the Sox failed to score in the inning despite having a double, walk and single in the frame.

–Luck was not in the Sox’ favor on Wednesday. The team lost out on a couple of scoring chances due to liners right at Angels players. With runners on first and second and no outs in the second inning, Jeremy Hermida lined a ball right back at Piniero. The Angels pitcher speared it and fired to second for a double play. Shortstop Erick Aybar‘s relay to first was a whisker late to catch Adrian Beltre, as the Sox narrowly avoided a triple play.

One inning later, Victor Martinez fouled off four straight 3-2 pitches with Dustin Pedroia running from first and no outs. On the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Martinez rocketed a liner towards right field. Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick made a leaping catch, and threw to first to double up Pedroia.

That contributed to a night when the Sox consistently hit Angels pitchers hard, but ended up with just three runs (on 11 hits) to show for it.

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For Garciaparra, a welcome home rather than a farewell 05.05.10 at 8:11 pm ET
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The numbers lined up for the Red Sox to welcome Nomar Garciaparra back to Fenway. After all, Cinco de Mayo – 5/5 – seemed the appropriate moment to have No. 5 come back to the ballpark in which he enjoyed his greatest successes.

Garciaparra, of course, retired in spring training after signing a one-day minor-league deal with the Sox. That was an acknowledgement of the idea that Boston will forever remain his baseball home.

On Wednesday night, Garciaparra had the opportunity to express his gratitude to the fans who treated him as an icon for his nine seasons as a Red Sox. It was an event that the 36-year-old savored even before the pre-game ceremony.

“I don’t know how I can really express, put into words, just how grateful I am,” said Garciaparra. “I never had a chance to just tell [the fans] thank you, tell them thank you and that I love them. I don’t know if the words are going to come out as eloquently that way or not today, but that’s really what it means to me.”

Garciaparra was selected as a first-round pick by the Red Sox in 1994, and reached the majors late in 1996. The next year, his first as a full-timer, he won the American League’s Rookie of the Year Award by hitting .306 with a .342 OBP, .534 slugging mark, 30 homers and 22 steals.

He went on to spend parts of nine seasons as a member of the Red Sox, hitting .323 with a .370 OBP, .553 slugging and .923 OPS. He was a five-time All-Star in Boston, and ranks fourth in franchise history in batting average, fifth in slugging and sixth in OPS. He won back-to-back batting titles in 1999 and 2000, hitting .357 and .372, thus becoming the first right-handed hitter to win consecutive batting titles since Joe DiMaggio in 1939-40.

He was received warmly at Fenway Park, where a number of former teammates (including Lou Merloni, Brian Daubach, Trot Nixon, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield and Kevin Youkilis) joined him on the field before the game. Garciaparra proved creative in his approach to the ceremonial first pitch, taking the ball and running a couple steps to his right before winging the ball across his body to Varitek.

It was a moment that defined the former shortstop’s palpable joy to be back at Fenway Park. The day was less about his retirement and his career than it was about a homecoming for which Garciaparra insisted that he longed after being traded by the Sox to the Cubs in a trade deadline blockbuster in 2004.

“I’m retiring as a Boston Red Sox. It never leaves you,” said Garciaparra. “It’s always been one of the biggest parts of my heart is always this organization and this uniform. So that gets to stay with me forever.”

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Pregame notes: Red Sox vs. Angels, 5/5 05.05.10 at 5:16 pm ET
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Happy Cinco de Mayo!

A few pregame items heading into Wednesday’s game between the Sox and Angels:

– Both Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron took batting practice and threw on the field prior to the game. Red Sox manager Terry Francona said that for both players, “that corner is starting to be turned where they’re being aggressive. … [The outlook] is getting brighter.”

While there is still no timetable for either player to return, Francona suggested that “hopefully, it won’t be too far off.” There has yet to be a decision made about whether the two outfielders will need a rehab assignment.

Jed Lowrie has started to add baseball activities to his strengthening program in the last five to six days. He’s now hitting off a tee and taking grounders, and has put back four pounds. Francona identified a goal of returning to games in about four weeks, though he suggested that might or might not prove feasible after Lowrie spent the last month and a half recovering from mono.

Boof Bonser is still slated for a rehab outing on Friday with Triple-A Pawtucket.

– Francona said that the team wanted David Ortiz in the lineup tonight both because he’s had terrific career success against Angels starter Joel Pineiro and because Ortiz will almost surely sit on Thursday against left-handed starter (and Ortiz dominator) Scott Kazmir. Francona said that he does not believe that the designated hitter’s struggles have been a distraction.

“It if is a distraction,” he said, “we have to figure out a way for it not to be.”

The manager appreciated that Dustin Pedroia was vocal in sticking up for his teammate.

– Francona is managing his 1000th game with the Sox on Wednesday. He was hardly effusive in reflecting on the accomplishment.

“Some days,” he said, “it feels like it’s been more.”

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Closing Time: Red Sox 17, Angels 8 05.03.10 at 10:50 pm ET
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The Red Sox offense has had more than its fair share of shortcomings this year, but power has not been among them.

The Sox entered Monday with 33 homers — fourth most in the majors — and left it with four more in a 17-8 assault on the Angels. The Sox have now hit 13 homers in their last four games, offering a suggestion that concerns about their power deficiencies (even with a struggling David Ortiz) may be misguided.

Buoyed by the warm Fenway night, the Sox offense unloaded on Halos hurlers. Kevin Youkilis (5), Bill Hall (1), Adrian Beltre (1) and Dustin Pedroia (7) all went deep in a game in which the Sox amassed 11 extra-base hits, tied for the most by the club since the vaunted lineup of 2003 bashed 12 extra-base hits in a 25-8 win.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

Kevin Youkilis is quietly moving back towards the numbers that have earned him top 10 status in AL MVP voting in each of the last two years. He crushed a homer and double and walked three times in six plate appearances. In his last eight games, he is now hitting .394 (13-for-33) with a .487 OBP, .758 slugging mark, 1.245 OPS and three homers. For the year, he is now hitting .289 with five homers and a .927 OPS.

J.D. Drew went 4-for-5 with a double, two runs and three runs driven in. His four hits matched a career high. On April 20, he was hitting .133 with a .472 OPS. In 11 games since then, he is hitting .364 with a .412 OBP and .727 slugging mark to lift his season-long numbers to respectability (.247 average, .802 OPS).

–Every Sox starter had at least a hit and a run, but a couple bore particular attention. Mike Lowell, who entered the game in a 2-for-20 funk, went 4-for-4 with three doubles (matching a career high) and 4 RBI. Adrian Beltre and Bill Hall hit their first homers as members of the Sox. And Victor Martinez, who was 1-for-13 entering the game, went 2-for-5 with an opposite-field double that he crushed to deep right field.

–Martinez also gunned down his third straight would-be base stealer dating to Friday in Baltimore. He delivered a strong, accurate, one-hop throw to second to clip Maicer Izturis in the top of the sixth inning. He has now nabbed 4-of-31 would-be base thieves.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

On a night of a double-digit blowout, the Red Sox shortcomings were few. That said…

Clay Buchholz earned the win, but labored in what seemed like excessive fashion on a night when he was staked to huge advantages. He threw 109 pitches in yielding four runs on eight hits in 5.2 innings, striking out just two and walking three. It is, however, worth noting that he had a 10:1 groundball:flyball out ratio. Moreover, of the eight hits he allowed, just one (an Izturis double) was for extra bases. Even so, his mound pace was at times painfully deliberate.

Scott Schoeneweis, making his first appearance in a week, was dreadful in the ninth inning. He allowed four runs on four hits and two walks, making it fair to wonder whether, had he turned in such a performance before April 30, Alan Embree might still be on the club.

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Closing Time: Orioles 3, Red Sox 2 05.02.10 at 5:03 pm ET
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The Red Sox suffered their first three-game sweep in Baltimore since 1974, dropping the finale of their set by a 3-2 count in 10 innings. The Orioles enjoyed their second walkoff win in three days when Ty Wigginton drove the game-winning double to deep left-center against Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon with Nick Markakis on second.

The Orioles are now 4-2 against the Sox, and 3-16 against the rest of baseball.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

Josh Beckett delivered his second-best outing of the season, allowing just two runs on six hits over seven innings. He walked none, hit two batters (clipping Ty Wigginton, who was having a great series against the Sox, twice) and struck out six. He relied chiefly on four-seam and two-seam fastballs, and the Orioles could must just five singles and a double against his lively pitches.

Beckett was touched in just one inning, when he nearly escaped harm. After loading the bases on a pair of singles sandwiched around an HBP to start the fourth, he punched out Luke Scott, then got a weak grounder to third from Nolan Reimold. But Reimold’s grounder was too soft for a double play, resulting in a run-scoring forceout, and Rhyne Hughes followed by bouncing a run-scoring double just out of the reach of Adrian Beltre at third.

Jason Varitek continued his monster start to the 2010 season. After driving a ball to the wall in left-center in his first at-bat, he crushed a homer to deep right field in his second trip to the plate. Varitek now has five homers in just 33 at-bats this year, and he’s sporting a 1.237 OPS.

J.D. Drew‘s day got off to a tough start, as he struck out (once looking, once swinging) in his first two plate appearances, giving him 29 punchouts on the year. But he changed the complexion of his day with one swing in the seventh, driving a ball just over the low fence in left-center for a solo homer, his third of the three-game series against the Orioles and his second to the opposite field. Despite his early struggles, Drew is tied for second on the Sox with both five homers and 14 RBI.

Daniel Bard, after blowing an eighth-inning lead in the first game of the series, rebounded to escape a huge jam with the game on the line. After loading the bases with one out in a 2-2 game, he blew a 99-mph fastball past Luke Scott, then punched out Nolan Reimold on a nasty slider to escape the threat and leave the tie intact.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE SOX

–The offense as a whole endured another dismal day. The Sox managed just five hits and two runs against O’s starter Kevin Millwood, who made it through eight innings.

–The Sox made a couple attempts to jumpstart their offense through the running game, and both backfired. In the first, with runners on first and second and one out, the Sox attempted a double steal. That backfired when catcher Craig Tatum gunned down Marco Scutaro at third. Then, with Jonathan Van Every on first and one out in the third inning, the Sox tried a hit-and-run with Scutaro at the plate. Scutaro hit the ball hard but to an unfortunate bit of real estate, lining a ball directly to shortstop Julio Lugo for an unassisted double play.

–Manager Terry Francona made a questionable decision in the eighth. Varitek was on second after a walk and sac bunt. Rather than pinch-running with Bill Hall, who entered the game as a defensive replacement after Victor Martinez pinch-hit for center fielder Jonathan Van Every in the bottom of the inning, Varitek was left to run for himself. On a two-out single to left, Varitek was thrown out by perhaps 20 feet.

Mike Lowell, after a fine start to the season (6-for-16), is now 2-for-20 since April 22 after going 0-for-4 with a pair of punchouts on Sunday, dropping his average to .222 with a .633 OPS. That said, Lowell did enjoy a flawless day at first base, a position in which he was appearing for the first time as a major leaguer.

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Closing Time: Orioles 5, Red Sox 4 04.30.10 at 10:46 pm ET
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The Red Sox appeared headed to an impressive 4-3 come-from-behind victory when J.D. Drew delivered a go-ahead homer for Boston in the top of the eighth. But the bullpen betrayed that advantage in Baltimore, as Orioles third baseman Miguel Tejada smashed a game-tying homer off of Daniel Bard in the eighth inning, then delivered a game-winning single back up the middle in the bottom of the 10th against Manny Delcarmen, as Baltimore claimed a 5-4, walkoff victory. (Recap.)

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

John Lackey was spectacular at times for the Sox. He featured a terrific curveball and slider that helped him to a season-high six strikeouts. He allowed three runs (two earned) in seven innings, allowing just five hits (four singles and a double), while throwing a whopping 120 pitches.

Lackey became the first Sox pitcher to throw 120 pitches this year. Entering Friday, all major league hurlers had combined to throw just nine games of 120 or more pitches.

J.D. Drew entered Friday with just one multi-hit game in 2010, two homers and a .181/.282/.306/.588 line. But the right-fielder smashed a pair of solo homers — one to left-center on a fastball from David Hernandez in the second inning, and another to dead center on a Jim Johnson fastball in the eighth inning — for his fifth multi-homer game as a Red Sox, and his first of the 2010 season.

Dustin Pedroia continued his current hot streak, going 2-for-4 with a homer to right-center and 2 RBI. He is now 10-for-26 (.385) in his last six games. His homer was his first since April 17, and just the third opposite field homer of his career. His six homers in April matched his career-high for any month (previously achieved in August 2008).

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

–The Red Sox defense, anticipated to be a strong suit this year, continued its disappointing path. A pair of errors led to a key unearned run in the fourth, as center fielder Darnell McDonald kicked a leadoff single to center by Miguel Tejada, then, after a walk put runners on first and second, third baseman Adrian Beltre booted a double-play grounder to allow a run.

Beltre was also caught out of the position in the first inning, when he was heading towards the bag on a planned pickoff throw to third. Matt Wieters shot a run-scoring single to left through the vacated hole.

Beltre in particular has made several sloppy plays this season (five errors), but the Sox defense as a whole has also been well short of advertised. Entering Friday, the Sox had a .691 defensive efficiency, ranked 19th among the 30 major league teams.

Daniel Bard grooved a 96 mph fastball to Miguel Tejada in the bottom of the eighth that the third baseman slammed deep into the left-field stands for a game-tying solo homer. It was the third homer that Bard has allowed in 14.2 innings this year. He gave up five longballs in 49.1 innings in the 2009 season.

–Beltre’s challenging evening did not stop there. He was also thrown out at third on a strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play, and was called for baserunner interference in the top of the seventh, thus turning what would have been a force out at second into a double play. The interference call (which was debatable) may have cost the Sox a run, since with two outs, McDonald walked and both Marco Scutaro and Pedroia singled, a rally that yielded one run but could have resulted in more.

Beltre did, however, go 3-for-5 to improve his average to .338.

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