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Says righthander Curt Schilling, "What happened to us is so obvious. We're a better team. It's so far beyond night and day, it's not even funny. And it's not just cutting down on unearned runs and errors. Plays that weren't made before that [became] hits are outs now. Ground balls that weren't turned are double plays now. Earlier in the year we were getting 27 outs a night and giving the other team 31. That's stopped.
"When plays get made, you throw fewer pitches, and when you throw fewer pitches, you go deeper into games, and when you go deeper into games, you don't need to ask so much of your bullpen. It's pretty simple."
The Red Sox went 8--7 immediately after the trade, extending their three-month malaise to 49--47 and their distance from the Yankees to 101/2 games. Starting on Aug. 16, however, Boston came within a brilliant three-hitter by the Toronto Blue Jays' Ted Lilly of ripping off 17 wins in a row. Only five previous Red Sox teams ever went 16--1, and none of them did so this deep into a season.
"The difference is defense," Rangers manager Buck Showalter said on Saturday. "It's refreshing to see someone recognize that, especially a team with an offensive history like Boston, and [especially] the way people get caught up in numbers. You take a guy like Cabrera. If he hits .250, with all the runs he saves, it's like he hits .270. Baseball is about run production and run reduction, and they're taking care of both."
Since the trade the Red Sox have cut their rate of unearned runs allowed by more than two thirds. Starter Derek Lowe, a ground-ball specialist, has benefited the most from the trade. Lowe had been so bad that the Red Sox tried to trade him in July. But at week's end Lowe was 4--1 since the Garciaparra trade. "When you have the defense behind you, you become aggressive and go right after [hitters]," Lowe says. "That's what I've been doing. That keeps your pitch count down and keeps you in games."
Cabrera, with his quick hands and footwork, has been critical to the leather upgrade. Last Thursday, for instance, with the Red Sox holding a one-run ninth-inning lead on the Anaheim Angels--their closest pursuer for the wild card-- Cabrera picked a mean short-hop throw from catcher Jason Varitek and tagged out Troy Glaus on a steal attempt. Boston held on for a 4--3 win. "Early in the season," Schilling says, "that ball's in centerfield, the runner goes to third, he scores on a sacrifice fly and we lose in extra innings."
Says Cabrera, who came over from the Montreal Expos, "A lot of these [ American League] teams don't know me. But by the third game of a series, I can see when the batter hits a ground ball, he doesn't even bother running hard. He knows he's out."
Cabrera is no Garciaparra with the stick--in 33 games with Boston through Sunday he was hitting .281, with three homers and 16 RBIs--but his glovework and energy have made him popular in the field and in the eccentric Boston clubhouse. The team is packed with wild-haired free spirits such as leftfielder Manny Ramirez, ace righty Pedro Martinez, centerfielder Johnny Damon and Lowe, producing a reputation for being too flippant.
Says Cabrera, "Man, these guys are crazy. If I ever manage, I'll tell the G.M., 'Get me 25 guys just like this.' It's fun, like a family."
In his first at bat with Boston, Cabrera ripped a home run--only seven other Red Sox players had done so--then suffered intense pounding by teammates on his helmet as he returned from the dugout. "I learned that's why you have to get your helmet off here," he said. "After I won a game [on Aug. 17, in the ninth inning against Toronto] with a hit, the first thing I did was throw my helmet away."