Hitting the road with something to prove

BOSTON -- The bags were packed, the rookies were dressed in their hazing costumes, and the Red Sox departed on Thursday night for their last road trip of the season.

They first head to Baltimore, where the team begins a three-city, 10-day road trip against the last-place Orioles and Royals and the first-place Yankees. New York will be the final stop, and the final team with a winning record that the Red Sox will play for the rest of the season. If they play well enough on the road -- which hasn't been their strength this season -- they could have an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot before they return to Fenway.

"Being that it's our last road trip, I think it'd be a good time to get over that hump and build some momentum for the playoffs," said outfielder Jason Bay. "Assuming we make it."

Since the team likely will have to play both the first and second rounds of the playoffs without home-field advantage, some players felt it important -- though not vital -- to have a good trip and improve on their 34-37 record way from Fenway.

"I guess it's just one of those things we have this year," said reliever Manny Delcarmen about the team's road struggles. "These next few weeks will definitely be big for us on the road. It's going to help define us a little bit and hopefully be for the best."

The Red Sox leave Fenway Park -- where they are a major league best 52-22 -- in a much better position than when they started their homestand 10 days ago. They went 7-1, their lone loss on Thursday night, 4-3, against the Angels. They went from 2½ games ahead of the Rangers in the wild-card standings to 6 games up, all but assuring themselves of a playoff spot.

But that doesn't mean the road will be kind.

"I still think our record should be better than it is on the road," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said before Thursday's game. "It's a concern."

What isn't too much of a concern at the moment is the team's starting pitching. Boston's starters are on an incredible roll. In the last 10 games, each starting pitcher has allowed three runs or fewer, going 5-1 with a 1.79 ERA during that span. Tim Wakefield will throw a bullpen session in Baltimore on Friday and, barring a setback, will start on Monday in Kansas City.

Probably most encouraging was Daisuke Matsuzaka's last start, in which he pitched for the first time since June 19 and didn't allow a run in six innings, aggressively using his fastball. The team will be eager to see if he follows up that performance on Sunday.

This week the lineup took a few hits, when both Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis were out; Martinez missed two games for personal reasons, while Youkilis missed three straight because of back spasms. Yet Boston still hit .311 and scored 49 runs in eight games despite their absence. Jason Bay added his 33rd home run on Thursday -- he's just two shy of his career high -- and Martinez extended his hitting steak to 16 games, just one away from his career best.

Youkilis, who was on deck Thursday night (as a pinch-hitter) when Rocco Baldelli flew out to end the game, said afterward that he was feeling better.

"I feel good," he said. "I should be in the lineup tomorrow."

Quick hits

After the game, infielder Nick Green said he still is having some "dead leg" issues, and he iced his right leg again Thursday and had electric stimulation. He said he would have "panicked" if he had to play in Thursday's game and estimated it would be a few more days before he could regain the strength in the leg and be ready to play. ... Despite closer Jonathan Papelbon's being unavailable for a game because of back stiffness, and some of the relievers struggling a bit, the Red Sox bullpen still posted a 1.99 ERA during the homestand. Papelbon warmed up on Thursday but did not appear ... After the game, the rookies were dressed as "Wizard of Oz" characters for the road trip. Daniel Bard was the Lion, Michael Bowden was the Tin Man, Dusty Brown was the Scarecrow, and Junichi Tazawa -- complete with a pigtailed wig -- was Dorothy. Daisuke Matsuzaka even helped Tazawa fit the last part of his costume on.