CLEVELAND -- They come home buoyed by victory, sobered by tragedy and motivated to do whatever they can to help a city heal.
A time to mourn, a time to celebrate.
"We're the Boston Red Sox," reliever Andrew Bailey said Thursday night, "but it's family, it's our own. The fans, the city, they look for us to give them peace of mind a few hours a night, but in reality we all struggle with it."
The Sox won their sixth straight game Thursday night, completing a three-game sweep of the Cleveland Indians. They come home in first place in the AL East with an 11-4 record, their best start since 2006, a performance made even more impressive by the fact that they've accomplished it without their best hitter, David Ortiz.
Awaiting them upon their return to Boston will be Ortiz, who wrapped up a week-long rehab assignment in Pawtucket with a home run Thursday afternoon.
But they also will be reconnecting with a fan base badly scarred by Monday's Boston Marathon bombings, which occurred less than a mile from Fenway Park just after the Red Sox celebrated a walk-off win there the same afternoon. A reminder of that terrorist attack has already been affixed on the Green Monster in left: The team's "B" logo, with the word "strong" underneath, an avatar that has been adopted in countless places across cyberspace.
"I know one thing," manager John Farrell said. "Just in talking to guys, I think we're all looking very much forward to getting back home.
"I'm sure there will be some low-key tribute to those who responded first to the situation. I think, based on the example of the jersey hung in the dugout, I think we feel a sense that we can contribute to the communal spirit."
Farrell was referring to the Boston visitors uniform jersey refashioned by equipment manager Tom McLaughlin in concert with Jonny Gomes and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the players he said directed him to write "Boston Strong" with the number 617, the city's area code, on the back. A home jersey has already been permanently stitched with the same words and number for Friday night's homecoming.
"We'll do something," promised Gomes, who was delighted to hear that Bruins players met with first responders after Wednesday's game and eventually went out together for beers.
"There's more than winning and losing involved when you're part of the entertainment industry," Gomes said. "Part of our job is to live out childhood dreams for people who aren't able to do that, give people a couple hours out of the day to check out of reality. And with it happening in our backyard, we've got a lot on our shoulders. But I couldn't pick a better 25 guys or staff to do that with."
The Red Sox will follow the example of the Bruins on Wednesday night and cue organist Josh Kantor to provide accompaniment for a collective singing of the anthem before Friday's game against the Kansas City Royals. On the mound when that happens will be Clay Buchholz, the 28-year-old from Nederland, Texas, who, in his last start Sunday, flirted with what the baseball business likes to call immortality, coming within six outs of his second no-hitter.
A stark reminder of our own mortality came a day later, embodied in the loss of an 8-year-old boy from Dorchester, Martin Richard, killed while holding an ice cream in his hand; a 29-year-old from Medford, Krystle Marie Campbell, whose mom said she loved her dog and loved to laugh; and a Boston University graduate student from China, Lingzi Lu, whose father described the news of her death as "a dagger in our heart."
"This will be something to remember," Buchholz said quietly in the visitors' clubhouse Thursday night.
"Absolutely," he said. "It just happens to be my day to pitch, but I think everybody is pumped to go back home and be out there and try to help those people who lost family and friends, help them to cope with it, help out in the community however we can."
The Marathon bombings are part of an eerie coincidence, one that few with the current team would remember, except for traveling secretary Jack McCormick. The Red Sox were in New York to play the Yankees on the night of Sept. 10, 2001, but were rained out. They flew out that night, just hours before two planes flew into the World Trade Center.
On Monday afternoon, the Sox had celebrated a walk-off win over the Rays and were minutes away from boarding the bus taking them to the airport and their flight to Cleveland when the bombs exploded on Boylston Street.
"It's going to be tough just flying back in there," Saltalamacchia said. "I watched the Bruins game and the anthem, and it was not only the city, but the country uniting. My kids go to school there. My kids walk those streets. My kids come to the park. That's home."
Bailey said he watched Thursday's interfaith service in Boston. What struck him, he said, was how President Obama was able to transform mourning into something akin to celebration. He hopes, he said, that something similar will happen Friday night at Fenway Park.
"It's going to be a great night," he said. "I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be emotional, but also fun. Like President Obama today, his speech was very powerful and moving.
"Bostonians know how to celebrate. The Boston Marathon is a day of celebration, and tomorrow we're going to continue that."