DENVER -- Dabbling in the National League is a typically pleasurable experience for the Red Sox, and this season was no exception.
The Sox completed the regularly scheduled portion of their interaction with their NL brethren by thrashing the Rockies 15-5 before a sellout crowd at Coors Field of 48,775, drawn in large part to say farewell to Todd Helton, who wore purple in all 17 of his big league seasons.
The fans got their promised bobbleheads, and Helton gave ‘em something to remember him by, cranking a long home run off Jake Peavy in his first at-bat and narrowly missing a second, with the ball hitting off the left-field wall for a double.
But the Sox hardly came away empty-handed after winning for the 14th time in 20 games against NL teams, improving their record to a major league-best 130-70 in interleague play since 2003. They reduced their magic number for clinching the league’s best record to two with just three games to play. The Oakland Athletics lost to the Los Angeles Angels to fall two games behind; the Detroit Tigers are three back after beating the Minnesota Twins Wednesday.
"It’s something that I don’t want to say has become on the forefront of guys’ minds," manager John Farrell said, “but it’s another goal guys have in front of them. It’s a motivator inside a game to put together a strong game and a good brand of baseball. That’s what we hope to do on this trip, and to finish out the season with the best record would be a further statement these guys are making."
So if the Sox want to see another NL team this season, they can still arrange to do so: The World Series begins in 27 days.
No sense getting ahead of ourselves, which has been a working template for the Sox all season. The business immediately at hand has been a priority from day one, and that was no different here Wednesday night. In addition to winning, here’s what the Sox accomplished, loosely arranged in order of importance:
• Jacoby Ellsbury made a successful return to the field after a 16-game absence. Wearing a protective plate on his shoe to protect the small fracture in his right foot, Ellsbury lined a single and scored in his first at-bat, grounded out and walked and scored in the fourth before being lifted in the bottom of the inning.
"He’s much improved," Farrell said. “I can’t say he’s completely 100 percent, but it’s not to the point where it’s holding him back on the bases, in the field or in the box. A good step."
• Will Middlebrooks, locked in a 5-for-41 slump despite a double Tuesday night, broke out of it in grand fashion with a three-run, opposite-field home run in the fifth and a grand slam off Roy Oswalt in the eighth. The seven RBIs are a career high for Middlebrooks; the slam was his second this season and the third of his career.
"It’s been a tough couple of weeks," Middlebrooks said. "It’s been a tough year. But at this point of the year, man, it’s not about me. It’s about winning for us."
Middlebrooks said he was surprised by Oswalt’s off-speed pitch on the slam.
"I thought it was going to go foul," he said. "How it stayed fair, I don’t know.
"He fooled me. He threw me that slow curveball. I was late on the heater before that, so I thought he was going to come with another heater. Sixty-four, sixty-five mile an hour curveball. I was just trying to stay in the at-bat."
• Franklin Morales, fighting for a spot on the postseason roster, made a compelling case for himself by picking off Michael Cuddyer before throwing a pitch, then pumping 95 mph fastballs to whiff Helton, a former teammate on the Rockies.
“I think the fact that he’s put the physical issues behind him, and you look at probably the last nine to 10 appearances for him, the power to the stuff has increased," Farrell said. "And, obviously, his pickoff is a weapon, and he comes in against a hot hitter and shuts him down."
• Peavy, for whom Coors Field has never been a comfortable habitat, got his work in and the victory, throwing six innings. He began and ended nicely -- three up, three down in the first and sixth -- with a lot of hits, runs and Helton’s home run in between.
"He had to grind through it, the way the ball was flying in here tonight," Farrell said. "Much like we’ve seen, he doesn’t back down, doesn’t give in. He gave us six blue-collar innings tonight."
Farrell has not disclosed his rotation for the postseason, but Peavy would figure to be a strong candidate to start a fourth game in the division series if necessary, following Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz, in that order. He threw 110 pitches Wednesday night in what will be his last in-game tuneup, though he figures to pitch in next Wednesday’s intrasquad game.
"I honestly felt as good tonight as [previously]," Peavy said. “It just stinks pitching here, especially when those balls are cold and humidified up. We won’t get into that, but I promise you those balls were in the humidifier tonight, which is A-OK because I’ll take our guys swinging when the ballpark was playing like it was."
For good measure, Peavy also doubled for the first hit by a Sox pitcher in 24 at-bats this season. Peavy’s hit triggered a rally capped by Shane Victorino’s three-run home run that broke a 4-4 tie in the fourth.
"When a pitcher gets a hit, it breaks your spirit as the opposing pitcher because you’re supposed to get that guy out," Peavy said. "Being able to contribute a little bit that way was fun, brought me back to a few years back when I enjoyed doing that a lot [while playing in the National League]."
• David Ortiz made it through two games of playing first base without incident and doubled home two runs in the first inning, giving him 100 RBIs for the seventh time, which ranks third all-time in Red Sox history. Only Ted Williams (nine) and Jim Rice (eight) have more. With Ortiz putting on his glove, regular first baseman Mike Napoli, who needed the break to alleviate the plantar fasciitis condition in his left foot, will have had six days off before he makes his expected return to the lineup Friday in Baltimore.
• Jarrod Saltalamacchia, having the best September of his life, went 4-for-5 for his second four-hit game this season and is batting .424 (14-for-33) with 10 RBIs in his past nine games.
• Ryan Dempster, who is transitioning to the bullpen, made his second relief appearance and pitched a scoreless ninth.
And in a great gesture of respect, at least 10 Sox players remained in front of their dugout to offer their congratulations to Helton as he made one final victory lap around the field.