The Red Sox always knew that, if they were going to contend for the AL East crown, these last few weeks would be pivotal. 23 straight games against division opponents to end the year and decide who was the king of the coast.
Now, after a second straight four-game sweep, the Sox are pushing to make the last series or two completely irrelevant.
Nothing if not consistent, the Red Sox scored five runs again. They put up exactly five against the Orioles in each game of this series, and each time it was enough. Tonight, though, it was only five where it could have been quite a bit more. After Chris Tillman got two outs to start the game, the Sox put the kibosh on a good start for Baltimore. Mookie Betts singled up the middle, David Ortiz drew a walk, and Hanley imitated Mookie to make it 1-0 and push Tillman over 30 pitches before leaving two men on.
Tillman’s troubles kept on coming in the second. Jackie Bradley Jr. led things off with a triple down the right field line, then quickly scored as Sandy Leon got back to hitting. Andrew Benintendi and Dustin Pedroia would provide Tillman with two outs, but he once again struggled to finish things off, loading the bases on a single to Brock Holt and a walk to Betts, bringing David Ortiz up to bat. The outcome was, frankly, not too bad for the Orioles, as Tillman only walked Ortiz, making it just one more run for the Red Sox before Vance Worley came in and got a pop-up from Hanley Ramirez to strand three more baserunners.
With the bullpen in the game, things settled down for Baltimore, and they actually managed to get back into things in a hurry. All year long the O’s have struggled to hit left-handed pitchers, but they also haven’t had Trey Mancini all year. The rookie who just took Eduardo Rodriguez deep for his first homer earlier this series came up against David Price after a couple singles in the third and, when he got a hanging changeup over the plate, did what he was supposed to do with that sort of pitch. The three-run shot to left tied things up, and left Price looking vulnerable once more.
But Price’s struggles were largely limited to at bats against the young Mancini. He would allow only one more hit Thursday night: a leadoff double down the right field line to the very same Mancini in the sixth. Price proceeded to get three unproductive outs to strand him at second, then went 1-2-3 against the O’s in the seventh with a pair of pop-ups and a strikeout. It wasn’t Price’s best work, but when it comes down to it, it was mostly one bad pitch, and he could well have pitched into the eighth had he needed to.
The Red Sox, though, made sure he did not. They had waited only until the fifth to re-take the lead, with Andrew Benintendi cashing in on a leadoff walk from Travis Shaw by producing a two-out seeing-eye single into right. The O’s had a legitimate chance at catching Shaw trying to score from second, but Chris Davis made the questionable decision to cut the throw off and instead catch Benintendi trying to take second on the throw. He got the out, but didn’t save the run, letting the Sox go up 4-3. They would make that 5-3 when Hanley Ramirez continued his wild run through the last month of the season, going the other way to take Donnie Hart deep over that right field wall.
And of late, when the Sox get to the eighth with the lead, it’s become pretty automatic. A rare hit batsman from Koji Uehara—Mancini, who else?—gave the Orioles a runner in the eighth, but he struck out Jonathan Schoop on three pitches to end the inning, and Craig Kimbrel made both J.J. Hardy and Hyun Soo Kim look pretty bad before getting Matt Wieters to hit a lazy fly to center, ending the game and the series.
The magic number is down to five, but if the Sox keep playing like they have been, clinching the East is going to end up being more of a formality than anything else. What a huge change from where things stood to start the month. These Red Sox have come alive at the perfect time.