We'll run through the highlights of the last seven days, exploring the main themes, the standout players and the odd occurrences that make baseball so great.
Without further ado, let's get this party started.
By and large, the starting pitchers have been terrific of late. Josh Beckett was a serious Cy Young contender through the middle of August, fell on hard times for four or five starts, and now appears to have righted the ship (which is certainly the case given Thursday's hard-luck, eight-inning, seven-strikeout no-decision). Jon Lester has been probably the most consistent Boston starter all season long. Clay Buchholz has made a very solid case to be the team's third starter if/when the playoffs arrive. And it'd be hard not to be thrilled with the recent performances from Paul Byrd and Daisuke Matsuzaka. With Tim Wakefield theoretically waiting in the wings, I like the staff's chances come October.
The bullpen has been a bit more hit or miss. From long relievers like Ramon Ramirez, Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen and Daniel Bard to new lefty Billy Wagner and closer Jonathan Papelbon, some days they look unhittable, while on others they're tossing batting practice. Thankfully for the Sox, the team has been scoring runs aplenty. But in a tight game in a tight series, manager Terry Francona will be forced to depend on the ?pen to be lights out.
But no worry, Sox fans, that's why we still have the Captain. Yes, Jason Varitek went 0-for-5 at the plate in the two games while V-Mart was away, but Tek called two terrific games, a point illustrated by the terrific starts out of Matsuzaka and Byrd.
Varitek was snake-bitten, though, both Wednesday and Thursday nights on third strikes that should have ended innings, but didn't. On Wednesday, with Ramon Ramirez pitching in the seventh, Angels slugger Kendry Morales struck out, but the pitch got past the 37-year-old catcher, allowing Morales to make it to first. The Angels went on to score four runs in the inning.
On Thursday, with Josh Beckett still in the game in the seventh, the big righty whiffed Chone Figgins on a wild pitch in the dirt. Again, the ball got past Varitek, Figgins made it to first and the tying run came around to score. The Angels got the winning run in the eighth.
To be fair, Tek is one of the league's best backstops in terms of blocking pitches. It's just an odd coincidence that we saw two similar plays take place with the Captain two nights in a row.
The problem? Back spasms, something from which the fiery infielder has suffered in seasons past.
"I've had back spasms every year," Youkilis told MLB.com. "At some point, you get them and they go away. Hopefully it will go away and I'll be good to go tomorrow. It's a long season. Things happen. I get this once a year, this one little thing. I was close to not having it this year and [then] it happened. It's one of those things where it could take just a couple of days and hopefully it's better and makes progress each day."
But despite the pain, Youk took great pride in the fact that the replacements for Martinez [Varitek] and himself [Casey Kotchman] didn't cut the Angels any slack.
"We're very fortunate in that if one guy is out, it doesn't mean we're not going to win," he said. "I've always been a big believer [that having] just one guy out of the lineup doesn't do anything. In order to win, there's a lot of guys in this room that do a lot more on a daily basis, so that's one of my big philosophies."
After Dustin Pedroia hit a go-ahead (and eventually game-winning) two-run homer against the Rays last Sunday, MLB.com raised the question of whether or not Pedie was as valuable to the Red Sox as he was in his MVP season last year.
Though his numbers this year aren't quite at last year's level, hitting coach Dave Magadan said that the diminutive second-sacker still has some tricks up his sleeve for the next few weeks.
"I don't put anything past him," Magadan said. "He can make these last 21 games seem like the first 140 didn't really matter. He's probably going to end up with his numbers about where they were last year."
But Pedroia's value goes far beyond his numbers. "Is Pedroia as important to the Red Sox this year as he was last year?" asked reporter Ian Browne.
"I would say more so," Francona told him. "As he grows into a leader, I would think probably more."
But even at age 35, the guy can still rake. He has slumped a bit at the plate in the month of September, but look at his season stats: a .292 average, 17 home runs, 70 RBIs and a .494 slugging percentage. You'd take that any day of the week from a guy who's played maybe three-quarters of the games since the arrival of Victor Martinez.
First, with two outs and two on, pinch-hitter Jed Lowrie (who's struggled to return from injuries all season long) ripped a ball down the third-base line that Figgins did well just to knock down for an infield single.
That loaded the bases for Nick Green and set up one of the crazier at-bats of the season. After going down 0-2, Green — much to the dismay of the Angels dugout — stayed alive on the subsequent pitch after the first-base umpire said he didn't go around on a close check-swing. Green then fouled off pitch after pitch, eventually working the count to 3-2. He finally took ball four on a pitch right down the middle that was just a smidge low according to home-plate ump Rick Reed. Almost like he couldn't quite believe his luck to get two 50-50 calls, Green almost tripped as he sauntered down to first. He is now supposedly suffering from — and this is true — a "dead leg" that came on after the questionable check-swing.
"I almost fell down," Green told the Boston Herald. "I have no idea what it is. It feels like dead leg. I almost collapsed every single swing, I almost collapsed walking down to first, and I almost collapsed when I was leading off. I don't know what's wrong with it."
Anyway, Alex Gonzalez followed Green with the bloop to left field that fell just in front of the oncoming Juan Rivera for the game-winning hit.
It's been tough finding much playing time for Lowrie and Green since Gonzalez came to town and took over at short, but it's clear that each will continue to happily play his role for the team — whatever that might entail — heading down the stretch.
It's been business as usual for Boston's All-Star left-fielder Jason Bay. He's hitting .327 so far in the month of September and has at least one RBI in 10 of the 15 games in which he's played. His towering two-run shot into the Monster seats temporarily gave the Sox the lead on Thursday.
After Bay's horrible month of July, naysayers were suggesting that the Red Sox shouldn't re-sign the soon-to-be 31-year-old outfielder when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season. What are they saying now? Is five years at $15 million per about right?
But Ellsbury is becoming the leadoff hitter of the Sox' dreams, too. He has improved on his already solid season at the plate in September, posting a season-high monthly batting average of .314 and an on-base percentage of .407 heading into Thursday night's game. He even ripped a game-tying homer around Pesky's Pole on Thursday against the Angels, his seventh bomb of the season.
Like Red Sox studio host Tom Caron wrote in his weekly blog, "Ellsbury has been exactly what the Red Sox need to start things each night."
He's done it rather quietly, but J.D. Drew has been a reliable contributor to the Red Sox lineup in 2009. Despite questions about his toughness and durability, he has appeared in 126 games so far and should end up just shy of 140 provided he stays healthy over the next few weeks.
A good athlete in right field, he's always been solid with the glove and has a terrific arm. But he's had another solid year at the plate as well. And many will continue to question his huge contract, but he's a seasoned veteran who performs well when it counts.
Case in point: Since Aug. 27, Drew has gotten at least one hit in 14 of 17 games for a .333 average. And you just know he's good for an important, late-inning, game-changing home run once we get into the postseason.