BOSTON -- There are off-days, and then there are what feel like long-awaited gifts from the schedule-maker.
The Red Sox experienced the latter on Thursday, finally taking a breather after a 20-day, 20-game stretch in which they played games in five different cities, probably waking up in the middle of the night on some occasions wondering where they were.
When the players arose on Thursday, they not only were at home ready for a seven-game homestand against the Rays and Tigers, but at last they had legitimate reason to feel good about themselves.
It had been a long time coming for a club that finished last season with the most epic September collapse in baseball history, only to start this season as if the fog still hadn't been removed.
"Well, like I said before the game, and I told the guys if they were listening after the game, it was just an amazing effort by a group of fabulous professionals who played through a lot of adversity, played through time zones, played through weather," said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. "We did one heck of a job winning these last two series. Going home at .500 is, I think, a feather in their cap. They played great."
|"I haven't experienced 20 days in a row for a while. I couldn't be more happy with the way the guys reacted to all of this stuff and to the schedule, the travel, the injuries, the weather."|
|-- Manager Bobby Valentine|
At this point, even through adversity, Boston is again turning into the type of team people want to root for.
The Red Sox don't just have one starting outfield on the disabled list right now. They have two.
Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and Cody Ross could be one starting outfield you might have envisioned over the winter. And if somehow all three of them went down, you'd have Ryan Sweeney, Darnell McDonald and Ryan Kalish, right? Well, all six players are down.
And instead of sulking about it, general manager Ben Cherington and Valentine have found some outfielders to fill out the lineup, and they've done it well.
Remember Daniel Nava? Few people did until a couple of weeks ago, when he resurfaced after a nearly two-year stay at Triple-A Pawtucket. The switch-hitter is batting .350 with two homers and 11 RBIs.
"There's not that pressure for us to have to step in and be the guy, because of our lineup, because of what they can do," Nava said. "And that allows you to play your game and not try and do too much. I think most guys will tell you, when you're able to simplify it, you give yourself a better chance to succeed."
If you thought Nava was under the radar, how about Scott Podsednik? He was all but forgotten. Best known for his World Series ring as a starting outfielder for the White Sox in 2005, Podsednik, like Nava, had been relegated to the Minors since 2010.
The Phillies sent him to the Red Sox a couple of weeks ago for cash. And sure enough, Boston had a need for him earlier this week. Never known for his power, Podsednik hit a homer on Wednesday -- his first start in a Boston uniform.
At the age of 36, it wouldn't have been surprising if Podsednik had walked away from the game after being stuck in the Minors for over a year. But he had a hunch there was a reason to stick around.
"I've been around long enough to know that you just never know," Podsednik said. "One day you wake up in Lehigh Valley, a few days later you wake up in Pawtucket, a few days later you wake up in Baltimore, and then you hit a home run for the Boston Red Sox. That's the way the game works sometimes."
It's been working out pretty well for Marlon Byrd also. He started the season 3-for-43 with the Cubs, but has given Boston a little life with his bat, hitting .271 over 85 at-bats and helping to fill the void in center field.
The Red Sox have won 10 out of their last 13 games, and you just never know who might wind up stepping into the forefront.
"It's kind of cliché, but we have a different hero every day," said starting pitcher Daniel Bard. "[Kelly] Shoppach, Nava and Podsednik step up [Wednesday]. Who could have planned that? That's the way you want to be as a team. If we're too dependent on [Dustin Pedroia] and David [Ortiz] and Adrian [Gonzalez], we're not really that good of a team. We're really well balanced right now. If we can get those 6-7-8-9 guys rolling, it takes pressure off the big boppers."
The outfield isn't the only place where unexpected players are stepping into significant roles. A similar story is unfolding in the bullpen.
The master plan over the winter was that Andrew Bailey would be the closer and Mark Melancon would be his top setup man.
Bailey wound up undergoing thumb surgery before Opening Day and likely won't pitch until the second half of the season. Melancon got off to a woeful start and was optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket.
To Melancon's credit, he got back on his feet at Triple-A and has been throwing lights out. But he's still not back with the Red Sox. Why not?
Because the rest of the bullpen has been stellar. Alfredo Aceves, the closer who endured major lumps the first couple of weeks of the season, is not only in a groove, but has dominated the opposition in recent weeks.
"Aceves has a nice rhythm about himself, doesn't he?" Valentine said. "A confidence. He's working with the catchers well."
While the Red Sox expected big things from Aceves this season, nobody could be sure what to make of the other relievers who have been key contributors.
Start with the lefty trio of Franklin Morales, Andrew Miller and Rich Hill. Morales had always been more of a roster-filler on teams. Now he's one of Valentine's top setup men.
Miller had struggled for years to establish himself as a starter, bouncing back and forth from the Minors. He's been lights out for the most part in his transition to the bullpen.
Hill underwent Tommy John surgery in June, but made it back in under a year. He struck out both batters he faced on Wednesday with the game on the line.
From the right side, Vicente Padilla told Valentine in Spring Training that he wasn't sure how effective he could be as a reliever. Well, Padilla has come on with 15 inherited runners this season and none has scored.
And the guy everyone always overlooks -- Scott Atchison -- has again resurfaced from Pawtucket and has a 1.13 ERA in 17 games.
"Everybody is contributing," said Hill. "On any given night or day, it could be anybody. It takes 25 guys, and that's the way we've been going about it. Everybody goes out there and plays with that conviction, and we all feed off of it."
At some point, the Red Sox might even get healthy and find out what they are capable of with Crawford, Ellsbury, Bailey and perhaps even Daisuke Matsuzaka.
For now, the Red Sox will get a quick respite before taking the field Friday night against the Rays.
"I haven't experienced 20 days in a row for a while," said Valentine. "I couldn't be more happy with the way the guys reacted to all of this stuff and to the schedule, the travel, the injuries, the weather. There's been no complaining; there's been guys going well beyond the call of duty. For me, it's a great thing to see as a manager, the way they've really come together."