Homers keep Sox in charge of Yanks
Ortiz, Cora, Ramirez extend Boston's first-place lead in AL East
NEW YORK -- There are no magic number countdowns, and no American League East clinch parties in sight.
However, the Red Sox can be safe in the knowledge that they've put themselves in the best possible position to make a run at their first division title since 1995. Their 7-4 conquest of the Yankees in Sunday afternoon's rubber match of a three-game series gave the Sox a commanding 6 1/2-game lead over their slumping rivals, who currently occupy the AL East basement.
And the four-game cushion over the second-place Blue Jays ensures that the Red Sox will have their biggest lead in the standings at the end of April in team history. Three times previously (1904, 1918, 2004), the Sox had a three-game lead when April came to a close.
"We know if we're healthy, we're a good team," said Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "We're playing like a good team right now. We've got to be happy. We've had good pitching, everyone's healthy and Manny [Ramirez] seems like he's going to start hitting, and then we'll really get good."
The Red Sox have taken five of their first six encounters with the Yankees, whom they next meet on May 21, back here in the Bronx.
"We feel good about the way we're playing," said Lowell. "I don't know how much it means about the course of the whole year, but I'd rather win five out of six than lose five out of six."
The finale of this particular series was a collective effort. Julian Tavarez battled through five-plus innings (three hits, three runs, two walks, two strikeouts) for his first win.
The bullpen, led by the surging Hideki Okajima, held the Yankees at bay over the final four innings. The rookie southpaw from Japan continues to fluster the Yankees. This time, he went two innings and struck out four.
"I think their MVP is the left-hander, the Japanese guy," said Yankees first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. "Every time he's come in, he's held us in check and allowed them to come back and take the lead or keep the lead. He's funky -- he's got something different."
It was more of the same from Jonathan Papelbon, who produced a clean ninth for his eighth save in as many opportunities.
And the bats, led by homers from David Ortiz, Alex Cora and Ramirez, did enough damage to make the pitching stand up. Ramirez's homer, an insurance blast in the eighth inning, gave him 50 homers lifetime against the Yankees. Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg and Carl Yastrzemski are the only four players who have belted more long balls against the tradition-laden Yankees.
Ramirez had a rough April, hitting .202 with three homers and 13 RBIs. Perhaps Sunday's opposite-field shot is a sign that the left fielder is about to go on one of his patented runs.
"He certainly helped us today," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "He hit a ball to right-center. If we can get him hot -- when we get him hot -- that will be really good for us."
It took one mighty cut from Ortiz to put the Red Sox on the board, as the star slugger unloaded for a solo shot into the upper deck in right field with two outs in the top of the first inning.
Coco Crisp ignited a rally against Yankees starter Chien-Ming Wang in the third, lacing a triple to right-center field. Cora produced a grounder to shortstop to drive in Crisp, making it 2-0.
"I thought we had great energy today," said Francona. "Even before the game. We've got a day off tomorrow, we're trying to win a series. They've got a pretty good pitcher going, and we played a complete game. We had to."
Tavarez got himself into a dangerous situation in the bottom of the third, walking Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano to open the inning. The slumping Mientkiewicz capitalized on the opportunity by walloping a three-run run homer to right to give the Yankees their first lead of the afternoon.
"I thought he looked real good," Francona said of Tavarez. "It was frustrating because we gave up the three on one swing in a situation they were trying to lay the bunt down and give us an out. He crossed Jason [Varitek] up on one pitch, and the runners moved up. That was the frustrating part, because I actually thought he was throwing the ball real well."
For those who wonder if Tavarez's mind might be preoccupied with thoughts of possibly being replaced soon in the rotation by a rehabbing Jon Lester, consider that the rubber-armed righty is the consummate team player.
"I know it's going to come around soon. It wouldn't surprise me," Tavarez said. "I'm just going to be happy when Jon Lester is healthy and ready to help our team and ready to help lead us to the World Series."
Tavarez and the Sox didn't stay down long. Crisp opened the fifth inning by getting hit by a pitch for just the second time in his career. Up stepped Cora, who belted a two-run homer over the wall in right to make it 4-3 Boston. The Red Sox are now 6-0 when Cora starts.
"He's doing good -- I don't know how he does it," said Ortiz.
From the starting rotation to the bullpen, and from the starting nine to the bench, the Red Sox are clicking.
"It's one month," said Varitek. "We've got five more to go, and hopefully six. We've done some things real well, and I think we've had some things that we can improve on, and first and foremost, I think we need to continue to pitch well."
And not look at the standings. Not at this time of year.
"It's way too early in the season to be talking about separating yourself," said first baseman Kevin Youkilis. "Separating yourself is when you get into August. But for right now, we'll take every win we can."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.