OAKLAND -- Among his many talents, it turns out that Jonny Gomes is an oenophile. Not only did he grow up in wine country -- nearby Petaluma, in the heart of Sonoma County -- but he took it a step beyond, too.
"I took viticulture in college,'' he said.
For the uninitiated, viticulture refers to the study and science of grapes, which requires an understanding of the process of winemaking.
"At my table, no one else is ordering the wine,'' Gomes said.
And in the Red Sox clubhouse, no one else would take it upon himself to order a huge six-liter bottle of cabernet sauvignon -- 2009 Mercury Head, from the Orin Swift vineyards -- big enough to hold every Sox player's autograph, and present it to David Ortiz as a parting gift from the team before he headed to the All-Star Game.
That's just the most recent evidence of the ties that bind a team that has blindsided the rest of baseball by coming into the break with more wins than anyone else, a 58-39 record that has the Sox 2½ games ahead of surging Tampa Bay in the American League East.
Isn't that right, Jonny? If someone had said to you on the first day of camp that the Sox would be where they are today, wouldn't you have been surprised?
"I would have said I'm surprised we hadn't won more,'' said Gomes, a sentiment that to those on the outside might suggest he had sampled a bit too much of the fruit of the grape.
"I see this as a unique experiment,'' he said, "bringing in so many guys who have won elsewhere -- [Mike] Napoli and [Ryan] Dempster and [Shane] Victorino and myself, Stephen (Drew), to the group already here that knows what it is to win -- and see what we've got. I expected us to win.''
Fair enough. But beyond the social engineering Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington successfully undertook to change the clubhouse culture after last season's debacle, the most remarkable aspect of the team's performance to date has been the way it has thrived with an ever-changing cast of supporting players.
The Sox come into the break having already used 19 position players and 22 pitchers, with a 23d, the newly promoted Drake Britton, waiting to make his big-league debut when play resumes Friday in Boston against the New York Yankees.
"It's been that many? I haven't counted them,'' manager John Farrell said. "A lot of depth. Organizational depth. So much has been made of our bench, but our bench has changed. Guys who were on the bench are now everyday players, and that's a credit to Ben and everyone else for not stopping at a certain number and saying, 'OK, we should have enough.'
"Shoot, we've got half of Pawtucket here right now. What has evolved on the left side of the infield is pretty remarkable, with the production, and I think since [Brock] Holt and [Brandon] Snyder have come up, we've made only two errors.''
Whether it's on the left side of the infield, where the Sox have cycled through six third basemen (Will Middlebrooks, Jose Iglesias, Pedro Ciriaco, Jonathan Diaz, Holt and Snyder) and three shortstops (Stephen Drew, Ciriaco and Iglesias), in a bullpen that has lost closer Joel Hanrahan and left-handed reliever Andrew Miller for the season, in a starting rotation missing ace Clay Buchholz for all but two starts since May 22, or in an outfield where rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. opened the season in left and Shane Victorino has missed nearly 40 percent of the starts in right, the Sox have patched and filled without any measurable drop in production.
The Sox come into the break leading the majors in runs (498), the staff ERA ranks seventh overall at 3.91, and the rotation, which ranked among the worst in baseball last season, checks in second in the American League behind the Detroit Tigers with a 3.82 ERA. The conventional wisdom said that the Sox would go only as far as Buchholz and Jon Lester would take them, which very much appeared the case at the outset of the season, with Buchholz undefeated and Lester winning his first six decisions.
But Buchholz has been shut down with shoulder issues for the last five weeks while Lester is 2-6 with a 6.27 ERA in his last 11 starts, and still the Sox have won.
"John Lackey and Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster,'' Farrell said. "You can count on them for six to eight innings an outing. And our offense has been very consistent. I don't want to say dominant, but it's been very productive and we've found ways to win.''
Those three pitchers have made 33 quality starts (6 innings or more, 3 earned runs or fewer), led by Lackey's staff-leading dozen, in a season in which his ERA stands at 2.78, which would rank as the best of his career and far below the 4.73 ERA he has posted since coming to Boston.
Who saw that coming? To a degree, Farrell did.
"I saw Doubront as being that guy,'' he said of the Venezuelan left-hander. "I didn't see the slow start, his delayed start to spring training. To the tune of 11 straight starts with 3 runs or less? He's capable of getting on that kind of run, so what he's doing is not fully a surprise to me. Ryan's doing everything we expected of him. Innings, dependability, you know what you're going to get.
"And I really thought Lackey had as much chance to impact this team as anybody, and he's doing that. One thing he showed right away was his ability to command the baseball, and as the season has gone on, his arm strength continues to climb.
"And it's all to his credit. He's reshaped his body, he's busted his tail, he looks more athletic and he's repeating his delivery, which is keeping him out of the middle of the plate. And 23 walks allowed in 100 innings? He's been outstanding.''
"I thought we would score runs, I really thought we'd have a productive offense,'' Farrell said. "Just getting guys back to their track records. Ortiz healthy, Pedroia getting healthy, Jacoby back every day. And where there were some uncertainties, I felt we could be creative enough to do some things that would either be very productive outs, or do some things with an aggressive style of play that we'd be able to score runs, and we're actually a little bit ahead of that.''
From day one, Farrell pressed upon his team a mandate to run the bases aggressively, which applied not only to the burners like Ellsbury and Victorino but to the smart base-runners like Gomes and even the lumbering Ortiz. It was not a tough sell. Farrell came into camp with across-the-board support in the clubhouse because of relationships he had forged in his previous go-round as pitching coach here, because of the close ties he had with the Sox baseball operations staff, and because he was not Bobby Valentine, a divisive influence from the day he was hired.
"I think going into spring training we had talented players who were team players, who came from winning situations, knew how to win and were about contributing,'' Farrell said. "I'm not saying they're just role players, because they're not. They're very good players. Their priority is to win.
"You can feel it. You can feel it in games late. You can feel that last push, to do whatever it takes to score one more run than the opponent.''
When did he know he had the respect of the clubhouse?
"I think that's ongoing,'' he said. "I don't think you ever get to the point of where you say, 'Well, this is who we are. I think that every day you try to be as consistent as you can, you prepare to the best of your ability. One of the great things about our coaching staff is its work ethic, a willingness to prepare. That has earned them respect from the players. We've earned their respect. They genuinely believe we're here to put them in the best position to succeed and we all want to win. Bottom line.''
Last season was one long series of brush fires, many of them either started by Valentine or fanned by him. It may have made for entertaining theater, but not being on speaking terms with coaches, fractious relationships with players, and a tense co-existence with the front office is no one's idea of a winning formula.
Farrell came in preaching a simple precept: the focus would be on the players and that day's game. To a remarkable degree, he has succeeded. The sideshows have evaporated. When there have been issues of deportment (Alfredo Aceves) or performance (Middlebrooks' prolonged slump), Farrell in concert with Cherington has acted decisively, with no one able to complain about the clarity of the message or the credibility of the messenger.
It helps immensely, of course, that Farrell has had guys like Gomes and Victorino and Dempster and Napoli who were willing accomplices from day one, that supposed extra pieces like Daniel Nava and Mike Carp have been invaluable, that Cherington's saturation approach to fortifying the bullpen allowed a Koji Uehara to step in when a Hanrahan went down. But as well as the Sox have played, the task remains incomplete, of course. The Rays have won 14 of their last 16 to draw within 2½ games of the Sox in the AL East, where the Yankees are still the Yankees and the Orioles have proven to be nobody's fluke. The Sox come out of the break playing their first 10 games against those three teams -- three against the Bombers next weekend, four at home against the Rays, then three with the Orioles.
But so far, everyone is satisfied, including the bosses.
"They're around fairly regularly,'' Farrell said of owners John W. Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino. They check in, give their thoughts and feedback.
"Fortunately, there have been more days to say 'good job' than other.''