Sox drub A's, trim magic number to two

Sox drub A's; magic number to two

BOSTON -- As if to celebrate the return of their long lost run producers, the Red Sox went on a hitting rampage on Wednesday night, reinforcing exactly what it is they can do when manager Terry Francona has a full lineup to work with.

The end result was an 11-6 thumping of the Athletics, which put the Red Sox in position to clinch their first American League East title since 1995 as early as Thursday night.

"We have to feel pretty good, especially with Josh [Beckett] pitching [Thursday]," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "We're all excited, we want to do it, not only win the division, but I want to have that best record. We want to host as many games as possible in the playoffs. There's a couple of teams that are right there with us. We still have something to play for in these last four games, that's for sure."

If the Red Sox win behind Beckett on Thursday and the Yankees lose to Tampa Bay ace Scott Kazmir, the division will officially belong to Boston.

And if this night was any indication, the Red Sox -- who have a magic number of two and a lead of three games over the Yankees with four to play -- are rounding back into form at just the right time.

Manny Ramirez was very much back on Day 2 of his comeback from a strained left oblique, lacing three singles and getting on base four times while batting second again. Kevin Youkilis, making his first start since Sept. 15, added a hit and a walk.

"Manny's our cleanup hitter," said Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. "Having him back, having Youk back, that puts our lineup where it's supposed to be."

But the big bangs of this 17-hit attack were produced by those not afflicted by the team's recent injury bug. For instance, Lowell went 3-for-5 and drove in five more runs to give him 116 for the season. Lowell surpassed Butch Hobson (112 RBIs in 1977) for the club record for most RBIs in a season by a Boston third baseman.

"There's been a lot of very good players who have played third base for this organization, so to be able to have a record like that is a very satisfying thing," said Lowell. "It's something I'll treasure. We got the ball, so it's a nice little memento, I guess."

Dustin Pedroia continued his quest for the American League Rookie of the Year Award by going 3-for-4 with four runs and a homer. The little second baseman looked downright revived in this one.

"For four straight months, this kid had been so hot, you know you're going to go through a period where you take your 4-for-20 or whatever," said Francona. "But he's staying on balls enough away to throw them into right field, and then they threw him that fastball and he turned on it."

Then there was Ortiz, who clubbed a pair of doubles to give him 50 for the season.

What does it mean for a man who last year hit 54 home runs to hit the half-century mark in two-baggers a year later?

"You have to run a lot," quipped Ortiz.

With the bats in full swing, the Red Sox were able to get by on a night Jon Lester labored (4 1/3 innings, seven hits, four earned runs), throwing 94 pitches in his final regular-season start. It was a strange night for Lester in that his stuff was strong enough to produce nine strikeouts. In fact, Lester joined Hideo Nomo (2001) as the only Boston pitchers since 1957 to record nine or more strikeouts in under five innings.

"I think the strikeouts show the kind of stuff he has," said Francona. "I thought early in the game his cutter was strong -- tight and good."

Lester got out of the first couple of innings unscathed, but labored thereafter. In a 26-pitch third inning, Lester managed to get out of it with just one run, and that came on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Nick Swisher that made it 1-0.

The Red Sox rallied right back in their half of the third. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Lowell roped a two-run single to right against Joe Blanton to give the Red Sox their first lead.

"I think in those situations, sometimes you have to take what the pitcher gives you," said Lowell. "You can't always look for your pitch. I think the pitcher determines that a lot. Blanton is a guy who, at least with my experiences and my at-bats, he's a guy that really doesn't give in. He works away and comes in occasionally. He's got pretty good stuff. He's giving me a pitch I can take to right, why not take it to right? I'm a pull hitter, but that doesn't mean you can't use the whole field."

J.D. Drew made it 3-1 on a sacrifice fly to left that Ortiz chugged home on.

But Lester hardly kept the momentum on Boston's side. A two-out walk to Kurt Suzuki proved to be a major downfall. After that came a single to Jack Hannahan and a three-run homer to left off the bat of Donnie Murphy to make it 4-3 Oakland.

"Same thing all season -- two-out walks or walks in general," said Lester. "They're just killing me every start. It was one of those deals tonight where I got myself in a bad situation and couldn't get out of it."

Much like Lester, Blanton couldn't keep a good thing going. Pedroia jump-started the Red Sox in the fourth with a double off the Green Monster. Ramirez followed with an RBI single up the middle. With two outs, Lowell produced perhaps his softest RBI of the year -- a little looper that fell barely onto the grass and into right field. Just like that, the Red Sox were back up, 5-4.

But then they weren't. Mike Piazza hit a mammoth home run over the Monster to tie it at 5. Lester had just one more batter in him, as he walked Jack Cust and was replaced by Kyle Snyder.

But the Red Sox finally grabbed the momentum and kept it in the bottom of the sixth. Leadoff man Pedroia again was a catalyst, smashing a solo homer to left. Ramirez walked and Ortiz doubled to left, setting up Lowell for yet another RBI opportunity. The third baseman did not disappoint, smacking a two-run single to left.

Ortiz had just one complaint.

"Mikey, he's been putting it together," said Ortiz. "All I asked him was, 'Man, can you go deep so I can stop running?'"

One thing was clear. Ramirez, 24-game absence or not, never seems to stop hitting.

"I think he's kind of falling in love with hitting second," joked Ortiz.

With Ramirez's thump back in the mix, the Red Sox might just be getting their offensive swagger back.

"He's a bona fide monster in the middle of the lineup," said Lowell. "I know we're hitting him second so he can get as many at-bats as possible. He really looks like he's recognizing pitches well, and I think that's a great sign. Pretty soon we'll put him in the spot he's supposed to be, and I think that's only going to make our lineup stronger."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.