"I think this is the best team in baseball," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of the White Sox. "They have a lineup that's strong, they have speed, they have a bench, they have starters, they have a bullpen. They're a very good team. And then you get Jermaine Dye, who swings it like he's swinging it like he did today right in the middle of those guys, it makes it difficult."
By the end of a grinder like this, the respect couldn't help but be on both sides of the field.
"They're a good ballclub," Thome said. "They've got good pitching. They've got a really good bullpen. It was a really good game. We hung in there and you've got to credit them; they have a really good team."
The biggest sequence of the game, unquestionably, came in the bottom of the seventh, when Josh Beckett (three homers allowed for the second straight start) walked off the mound with the bases loaded and nobody out and the Chicago's lethal 3-4-5 combo coming to the plate. A three-run lead never looked so small.
So on came lefty specialist Javy Lopez, who struck out the menacing Thome on a 75-mph slider. Lopez has now held Thome hitless the eight times he's faced him, striking out the left-handed masher three times.
"I've been pretty fortunate just to be able to get out there and get some strikes and make him swing at my pitches," said Lopez.
Then, it was up to rookie Craig Hansen, who induced Paul Konerko into a shallow fly to right that Trot Nixon not only caught, but managed to avoid dropping after second baseman Mark Loretta bounced off his right hip. Nixon had also made a full-out sprawl on the lawn in right-center to rob Alex Cintron of a hit earlier in the game.
Hansen finished off the inning by getting Dye -- with two homers earlier in the game -- on a looping liner to short.
"For me, a lot of things happened in the game but the game was won with Lopez and Hansen doing their jobs at a point in the game where, if they have a hiccup or they don't command or something, we're looking at a boatload of trouble," said Francona. "And they executed pitches very well to very dangerous hitters. "
The only reason the young relievers had a lead to protect was because of some clutch work in the sixth and seventh.
Alex Cora worked a two-out walk off David Riske and stole second before scoring on an RBI single to left by Kevin Youkilis in the sixth. Boston again did all its damage with two outs in the seventh, with Mike Lowell getting it started with a single up the middle, moving to third on a bloop single by Coco Crisp and scoring on a seeing-eye single through the middle by Doug Mirabelli.
Cora then came through again, ripping a single off the glove of Konerko that scored Crisp.
"You just never know what's enough," Francona said. "You just keep trying to score. We'd score, then they'd come back and score. It was a long game and you've got to grind it on days like that."
Beckett got the win to improve to 11-4, despite a less than pretty stat line (six innings, 10 hits, five runs, two walks, four strikes).
"I got picked up today by the offense," said Beckett. "Any time you score nine runs, I think you should win. They picked me up. I was battling against myself out there. It was just one of those days out there where I almost felt too good. Like I said, it ends up being a battle, not only against a pretty good hitting team, but also against yourself. Fortunately, we came out on top. A win is a win, like I said."
Dye hit a towering shot into the shrubs behind the center-field wall in the second to give the White Sox a 1-0 lead.
The Boston bats, quiet early against Freddy Garcia, came to life in the fourth. Manny Ramirez started it with a one-out, double down the line in left. Nixon followed with a single up the middle and Mike Lowell brought both runners home with a two-run double off the wall in right. A third run came across later in the inning on a fielder's choice grounder by Mirabelli.
That 3-1 lead lasted only as long as Dye's next home run cut. The outfielder this time jumped on a Beckett curveball, hitting it so far to left that Ramirez never even looked to see where it landed. That two-run shot tied the game at 3.
"I had great stuff," Beckett said. "Days like that, you should go out there and dominate. Today I was battling against myself with my fastball, curveball and changeup, everything was just a little bit up. That happens when you're too strong."
The red-hot Ortiz knows all about what it's like to be too strong. He can play home run derby with the best of them, and he answered Dye's equalizer by putting Boston back in front with a 418-foot, two-run homer to center. It was Ortiz's eighth homer in the last nine games.
"I don't want to talk about it right now, I don't want to stop," said Ortiz, who is defining what it's like to be in the proverbial zone. "Just keep working and trying to get better and better and hopefully go like that all the way."
Back and forth it went between these two American League heavyweights. Scott Podsednik led off the fifth with an infield single, stole second, moved to third on an infield grounder and scored on a wild pitch. Then came another homer off Beckett, and this time it was Jim Thome who unloaded to tie it back up.
Can the Red Sox sweep the White Sox right off their own field?
"You've got to come in and play, it doesn't matter, you can't think about sweeping until the game is over," Ortiz said. "You never know what's going to happen."