In case the nine-game deficit and the third-place standing in the American League East is not enough to illustrate that this year is unlike others in recent Red Sox history, perhaps this little nugget can: With a victory Wednesday night at Fenway Park the Baltimore Orioles will win a season series against the Sox for just the second time in 14 years, turning around one of the most lopsided rivalries in baseball.
A 9-1 rout on Tuesday night gave the O’s a 9-8 lead in the 2010 series with one game to play. Entering the season, the Sox had won five straight season series by an alarming 55-17 margin and 12 of the last 13 by a 149-91 gap.
But the surging Orioles, who will finish last for the fourth straight year but have been among the best teams in the division for nearly two months, no longer appeared frazzled in Fenway, where they had gone an unbelievable 9-36 from June 2, 2005 through July 4 of this year.
"I didn’t know it was that bad," said longtime Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts. "I knew it was pretty bad here. We never have had a whole lot of success here in a long time so it’s good to be able to play good baseball here."
While the Orioles sudden confidence against the Red Sox has snuck up on some, perhaps we should have seen the shift in attitudes coming. After Boston opened the season series with two straight wins at Fenway Park way back on April 23-24, Baltimore took the third meeting in extra innings and then swept three straight down in Camden Yards, taking two in walk-off fashion.
If you recall that was the series that saw the Sox fall to 11-14 and receive a visit from general manager Theo Epstein, who uttered the words that defined his team’s sluggish start: "Things haven’t really changed. We talked about this last week. We’re still playing bad baseball. Unintelligent, undisciplined, uninspired baseball. It’s got to change. It either changes itself or we have to do something to change it."
That marked the O’s first three-game sweep of the Sox at home in 36 years. Baltimore’s current three-game winning streak in Fenway is its longest in five years. Sure, they only have 61 wins in 2010 but the O’s aren’t pushovers to the Sox anymore.
In many ways, Epstein’s words still apply after the way Boston was trounced on Tuesday, although at this point there is nothing that can change it. The sinking Sox, 14-18 in their last 32 games at home, left 11 runners on base and committed two big errors in getting pounded by a last-place team which once had a penchant for hurting itself in Fenway Park.
It is almost hard to remember that Boston actually led 1-0 entering the sixth. A dropped popup by Marco Scutaro allowed the tying run to score with two outs in that inning. In the final three frames Baltimore scored eight times on nine hits, one error, one wild pitch with a runner on third and one groundout to Jonathan Papelbon that saw the Sox closer throw to first, apparently thinking it was the final out of the ninth.
It was not, and the last run of Boston’s fourth loss in five games on this homestand scored easily from third.
"The last three, four innings weren’t real good," said manager Terry Francona, who indicated it looked as if Papelbon lost track of how many outs there were. "I think we were all frustrated. You give up that amount of runs after playing a real clean crisp game."
Baltimore was once the team that melted down when these two teams met, not to mention in its meetings with many other teams. Not anymore. Under Buck Showalter, who took over as the Orioles new manager Aug. 3, the Orioles are 29-17. Boston is 23-22 in that same time frame.
Showalter’s attitude alone, built through nearly 1,800 games as a major league manager, has already helped alter the team’s mindset in places like Fenway, a venue which once spelled doom for the O’s.
"Not everything here happens good for the Red Sox," Showalter said. "There’s some things that work in our favor too. It’s the same field. They don’t change it from team to team."
Indeed, it is no longer lopsided. Not the field. Not the series. And on Wednesday, for a change, it might actually lean in the other direction.
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