Turnaround starts with pitching

PHILADELPHIA -- It was true when Harry Hooper was hitting leadoff home runs like an early 20th-century version of Mike Aviles, and it remains true today.

Nothing makes a team look better than when it gets good starting pitching, night after night.

Maybe it took David Ortiz raising his voice in a team meeting -- manager Bobby Valentine offhandedly had hinted at the time that the hitters called out the pitchers, then just as quickly tried to dismiss that any such thing happened.

Maybe it took Josh Beckett bristling at what he considered a heavy-handed intrusion into his personal time.

Or maybe, and this may be the most plausible explanation of all, it was just a matter of time. That just as the bullpen fell into place, so too would the starting rotation.

With Beckett giving the Red Sox seven scoreless innings for the second start in a row, the Phillies finally breaking through for a run in the eighth, Boston won 5-1 for its eighth victory in the past 10 games, drawing to within a game of .500 (20-21). The Red Sox haven't been at the break-even point since April 30 (11-11) and have yet to have their heads above water all season.

That may be about to change, as the Sox head to Baltimore, where their season came careening to a sudden halt last September, to play the Orioles, who have so far resisted the urge to fall from their perch as the American League's best team.

No one, outside of perhaps Dan Duquette's closest friends, expects Baltimore to remain at the top much longer, and the Red Sox could be the just the team to start chiseling away at the Orioles' belief they can hang with the big boys, a sentiment Baltimore reinforced by sweeping three straight in Fenway Park just two weeks ago.

Much has changed since then, most of it good. And it's showing every sign of lasting.

"We're having fun, we're playing ball, we're playing the way we should play," said Aviles, who hit a leadoff home run in each of the past two games, the first Red Sox player to do so since Hall of Famer Hooper in 1913, and hit a homer in each of the three games here.

"We're playing good defense, our pitchers are pitching well, and our offense is rolling pretty good. When you're doing all three of those you have a pretty good chance to win every night, and that's where we're at. We're at a point we feel we can win every game."

You can't talk like that, of course, when your starting pitchers are getting their heads handed to them on a nightly basis. After Beckett was bombed for seven runs in just 2⅓ innings on May 10 against the Cleveland Indians, Sox starters had a collective ERA of 6.01 through 31 games. In almost half of those games (14), they'd allowed five runs or more. They'd failed to pitch beyond the fifth inning 11 times.

The next day, Ortiz called a team meeting, a gathering first reported by Ken Rosenthal, who was here Saturday as part of Fox TV's national broadcast.

"He's a leader, he's a leader,'' Aviles said. "And when you have a leader like that call a meeting (he) basically says, 'Let's go, let's step this up and get where we need to be.'

"You look at this locker room, there's a lot of talent in here. There's no reason we can't win. None whatsoever. I just feel like when you have your leaders talking and letting everybody know, when we all get together, we're playing like a team now. That's the way it should be. A lot of talent here. No reason not to win.''

Since then, Red Sox starting pitchers have gotten the decision in all eight of Boston's wins in the 10-game stretch, and have posted a 2.69 ERA. They've allowed only two home runs in that span after allowing 27 home runs in their first 31 games, and they've struck out 45 batters while walking 24.

Beckett has been the best of the bunch, having allowed just one earned run in 14⅔ innings, with seven scoreless against Seattle last Tuesday and 7⅔ innings of seven-hit, two-walk ball Sunday against the Phillies.

"Josh has been unbelievable two starts in a row," Aviles said. "He's pitching the way he knows he can and we know he can, and when he's out there pitching that hard, we've got to play some defense and score some runs for him, because we know he's giving everything he's got."

Beckett has been solid other than two brutal starts -- the five-homer barrage by the Detroit Tigers he absorbed in his first start, and the beating he took at the hands of the Indians, which came after he'd been skipped a start, then was called into question for playing golf the day after he'd scratched.

"I feel like I've had some other pretty good starts this year," he said Sunday. "You guys [reporters] don't see that. But I've had them."

Beckett's performance of late trumps even his good early outings in terms of the overall crispness of his pitches and location, according to the scouts who watched him Sunday.

"I think he's throwing his curveball so much stronger and his changeup with so much arm speed," Valentine said. "He's controlling the bat head more.

"I just see a guy every day coming in here, he seems excited about being here, kibitzing with guys, working hard in the bullpen, the training room. What's there not to like?"

Setting aside the question of whether Beckett became the first Texan ever described as "kibitzing," the entire team has elevated its game. The Red Sox have made the second fewest errors in the American League, but their defense sparkled even more so this weekend. Or maybe it just looked that way, because Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez both flashed some serious leather, Ortiz at first base, Gonzalez in right field.

"Why do you think I call him a Gold Glove DH?" Gonzalez said of Ortiz, who snagged a couple of line drives, made a backhanded stop on the first-base line and added a nice feed to Beckett. "If he was a first baseman, he'd be a pretty good one. Man, we all know that. He just happened to fall into the role of DH-ing."

But what happens if Ortiz "Pipps" Gonzalez at first?

"Then I'll 'Pipp' someone in right field," said Gonzalez, whose ability to handle the position allowed the Red Sox to survive the unavailability of two more outfielders Sunday, Cody Ross (foot) and Ryan Sweeney, who sustained what he called a mild concussion making a sensational catch Saturday night.

Pipp, of course, is Wally Pipp, who was the Yankees' regular first baseman until Lou Gehrig took over and played the next 2,130 games at the position.

Did the Red Sox turn the corner this weekend, one in which they hit nine home runs, including a 466-foot blast off Phillies ace lefty Cliff Lee by catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia that was the third-longest home run hit in the majors this season, carrying to Ashburn Alley, the plaza in left-center field?

"It all comes down to playing good baseball, which we're doing," Gonzalez said. "We play good baseball, we're going to win games. We're more talented than pretty much every team out there. Talented teams win when they play baseball the right way."