BOSTON -- The Red Sox have emerged from a challenging schedule that had them play 19 games in six cities and three time zones over the past three weeks, and only three of those games were at Fenway Park.
All things considered, a 9-10 mark during that potentially treacherous stretch wasn't all that bad, especially when the Red Sox remain in first place in the American League East, albeit by a paltry 1 1/2-game margin over the Rays. Boston finished the demanding stretch with a flourish, taking two out of three at Dodger Stadium against the hottest team in the Majors, and going 4-2 on a West Coast swing.
The Red Sox are positioned nicely for their final 30 games, right in the thick of the pennant race.
As the players gathered their belongings at Dodger Stadium late Sunday night and got ready to fly home to begin a nine-game homestand Tuesday, there was energy in the room. For a veteran-laden team that consists of many players with postseason track records, this is the time of year everyone looks forward to.
"We're in that [final push]," said Dustin Pedroia. "I don't think anybody's looking ahead. We're just trying to come out and win some ballgames. Every game that's on the schedule, we'll try to win."
The final push starts with three at home against AL MVP Award candidate Chris Davis and the dangerous Orioles, Tuesday through Thursday. The non-contending White Sox come to Fenway for the weekend, and then the AL Central-leading Tigers visit to finish the homestand.
Things don't get any easier on the road, as manager John Farrell's team plays four at Yankee Stadium from Sept. 5-8 and three against those Rays from Sept. 10-12.
For the season's final homestand, the Yanks come back to Fenway from Sept. 13-15. Following an off-day, the Sox host the Orioles from Sept. 17-20 and the finish with three more against the Jays. The last road trip has two games in Denver against the Rockies, and the last three regular-season games are at Camden Yards, where the Red Sox hope not to relive their nightmare walk-off loss of two years ago.
If the schedule sounds daunting, the Red Sox are looking forward to each challenge.
"This is a fun time of the year -- especially when you're playing good baseball," said first baseman Mike Napoli. "There's a lot of guys in this clubhouse who have been here before in this situation, which is a good thing. We never get too high, we never get too low. We worry about that day and try to win that day."
The reason the Red Sox feel confident they can win "the day" a lot down the stretch is because their starting pitching has gotten red hot, and that's even before Clay Buchholz has been able to return to action. Jon Lester, Jake Peavy, Felix Doubront and John Lackey put together a ridiculous stretch on the just-completed road trip in which they combined for a 1.12 ERA.
"They know there's a state of urgency because every game counts," said pitching coach Juan Nieves. "They also counted on June 5, but they know what's expected now and we expect the best from them all the time. We do talk about accountability a lot here and being relentless. They are stepping it up."
If pitching is the key ingredient, offensive production is also pretty important. And one man who makes the Sox a lot more dangerous when he's hot is Napoli, who completed the road trip with two solid games and hit a titanic home run on Sunday night.
"I think the thing that we're learning about Mike is that when he's rested, he's a force. And we've got to continue to balance that as we go forward, and that will probably include rotating some guys through," said Farrell. "I don't want to say it'll be a platoon situation, but when he's rested, that swing is pretty dynamic."
If the Red Sox have a cause for concern at the moment, it's that the setup crew still seems unsettled.
But the closer has been dominant. Koji Uehara has a 1.24 ERA and a .144 opponents' batting average.
"This is someone who's been a very successful pitcher before he came to us, whether it's been a starter or a closer in Japan, or his entire career here in the States," Farrell said. "He might be more effective now for a longer period of time, but this is someone who has had a lot of success throughout his career."
The Red Sox are 77-55, which puts them in good position heading down the stretch. But the players know they will be defined by what happens the rest of the way.
"This is what every player, when the season starts, you hope you're doing, playing in a race," said Ryan Dempster. "Come September, you want to be playing for something and not just playing to be a spoiler. You're going out there and trying to get the ultimate goal, and that's to get to a World Series. We're just enjoying every minute. I think everyone in here is really excited. Me personally, I love this and that's why I came here."