Reenergized Red Sox surpassing expectations


David Ortiz, left, congratulates Boston teammate Mike Napoli after his three-run homer against the Yankees on July 21. The Red Sox have been perched near the top of the AL East all season. (Jared Wickerham/GETTY IMAGES)
July 30, 2013

A few hours before last Saturday’s game against the Baltimore Orioles, a handful of Boston Red Sox players were sprawled on the couches in the visitor’s clubhouse at Camden Yards. Others sat at their lockers with their chairs turned toward the center of the room. All eyes were locked on the television as Tampa Bay tried to close out a 1-0 win over the Yankees.

Their viewing was suddenly interrupted as David Ortiz lumbered over, put his hands on the side of the TV and bellowed a slightly more expletive-riddled version of “COME ON, YOU YANKEES!”

Yup, things sure are different for the Red Sox this year.

“I think that’s the first time I’ve ever rooted for New York,” Ortiz said as he plopped down with his teammates on the couch.

“2011,” Jarrod Saltalamacchia reminded him, all the while keeping an eye on Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer, who finished the complete game victory. The Rays and Red Sox have exchanged the lead in the American League East the past few days, with Tampa Bay currently holding a half-game lead.

The Red Sox are still 20 games over .500 through 108 games this year after being 53-55 in the same stretch last season. The big change isn’t an easing of hostility toward their bitter rivals from the Bronx. Rather, the change is in that clubhouse conversation.

“The thing that sticks out most here it’s like non-stop baseball,” Jonny Gomes, an 11-year veteran of five teams, said. “It’s funny to say, but it’s true: There are some people that are good big leaguers that don’t like baseball. They have god-given ability, it’s almost like the sport picked them. Over here, they talk it, they breathe it.”

Expectations for Boston’s season were tempered when the Red Sox opted to reload with “character guys” — including Gomes, outfielder Shane Victorino and starter Ryan Dempster — rather than make a big-money, big-name offseason splash.

Starting rotation mainstays like Clay Buchholz have battled injuries, and the bullpen has been decimated by them. Newly acquired closer Joel Hanrahan was lost to Tommy John surgery in May, left-handed setup man Andrew Miller was lost to a torn ligament in his foot, and hard-throwing righty Daniel Bard, a bullpen fixture the past few years with a well-earned reputation as one of the game’s best setup men, has been demoted as he tries to rediscover the strike zone.

And yet, the Red Sox are perched — albeit precariously — near the top of one of the most loaded divisions in baseball. The young players have produced, and veterans like Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli are seemingly energized.

“They’re a bunch of grinders in here. It’s all about winning, but they make it fun at the same time. They’ve treated us with nothing but respect,” rookie starter-turned-reliever Drake Britton said. “No matter what happens the day before, turn the page and we’re ready to get out there and win the next day.”

Early the next day, after a loss that earlier in the series dropped them out of first place for the first time since May 27, Foreigner was blasting in the clubhouse as Pedroia stood in front of his locker, batting gloves on, practicing his swing. Buchholz, though injured, walked around, restlessly bouncing a baseball, occasionally picking it up and slowly going through his arm motion as he tossed it at the couch. Napoli sat, sweatshirt hood pulled up, watching film with a laser-like focus.

“Guys come in every day ready to work that day. We’re kind of an in-the-moment team — a good mix of guys who come in and enjoy coming to work,” veteran catcher David Ross said. “That’s not how it is everywhere. . . . I walk in here at 9:30 this morning, Dustin Pedroia’s in full uniform. That sends a message.”

Matt Thornton, acquired from the White Sox earlier this month to bolster the bullpen, got that message right away.

“Baseball’s all that matters here, winning baseball games,” Thornton said. “You’re 20 games over .500 and expecting to win. That’s the biggest thing: they’re expecting to win right now.”

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