Anyone who questions whether the Red Sox can stay in the AL East race through the summer would do well to study the tenacity of their at-bats.
They began play Saturday night leading the majors with 4.08 pitches seen per plate appearance and with 8,798 total pitches faced. Then they proceeded to wear out Yankees starter Phil Hughes in slapping him with an 11-1 loss at Yankee Stadium.
The Red Sox exerted relentless pressure on Hughes before chasing him after 41/3 forgettable innings in which he allowed five runs and seven hits, including a grand slam by Mike Napoli. He walked two batters, one intentionally, and struck out seven.
Hughes had to throw 100 pitches, 67 for strikes, to register 13 outs. On a sweltering evening in which the game-time temperature was 86 degrees, an early exit was virtually ensured. Said Hughes, "It was a battle. There were a lot of long, tough at-bats.''
"What we're trying to do every time, every game, is grind out at-bats,'' Napoli said. "That's what we've been doing all year and we did it well tonight.''
Said manager John Farrell, "It goes to the selection of the players we're bringing in here. That approach is by design.''
Game after game, this is what the Red Sox do. And it goes a long way toward explaining why they lead a division in which they finished last a year ago with a 69-93 record that was the third worst in the American League.
Entering Saturday night, all of those painstaking at-bats ranked them second in the majors in runs, (275), times on base (739) and on-base percentage (.343). They padded those totals against a team that could use a few reminders about the value of patience.
It should be noted that the Yankees, in suffering their humbling four-game sweep at the hands of the lowly Mets, failed to draw a walk in the final three games, a stretch that equaled the longest in franchise history.
That kind of thing does not happen to these ever-pesky Sox. They produced at least one baserunner against Hughes in every inning and placed the leadoff man aboard in three of the five innings. Seven of their nine starters reached base against him.
In underscoring the top-to-bottom strength of Boston's order, the five-run third inning was ignited by No. 9 hitter Jackie Bradley Jr. He ripped a double over the head of centerfielder Brett Gardner and reached third on Daniel Nava's soft single to left. Mike Carp followed with an RBI double that kicked up chalk down the leftfield line.
Hughes fanned Dustin Pedroia for the first out and intentionally walked cleanup hitter David Ortiz to bring up Napoli. If there is one player who embodies Boston's meticulous approach to offense, it is Napoli. Through his team's first 56 games, he led the majors with an average of 4.49 pitches per plate appearance. Beyond that, Napoli (1,042), Pedroia (1,038) and Ellsbury (1,011) were the top three AL batters in pitches seen.
Given Napoli's penchant for waiting for a pitch he can drive and Hughes' knack for serving up home runs, the outcome of this game-changing at-bat was no surprise. After falling behind 0-and-2, Napoli blasted Hughes' 2-and-2 fastball over the fence in right-center for a grand slam and a 5-0 lead. "They worked [Hughes] hard tonight and his pitch count got up early in the game,'' Joe Girardi said. "When you do that, you're usually going to give up some runs because your stuff is not quite as sharp. They put some tough at-bats on him. He had a hard time putting some guys away. He was getting ahead of them but he couldn't put them away.'' With David Lennon