Ask anyone – teammate, coach, manager, reporter – and he’ll tell you the same thing: Nick Punto is still finding his swing.
Punto found his swing Saturday at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, going 3-for-4 and falling a triple short of the cycle while driving in two and scoring two runs. The Red Sox beat the Blue Jays, 7-4, moving into sole possession of fourth place in the AL East.
Punto’s first hit came in a second-inning sequence of four consecutive Red Sox hits, beginning with a Ryan Sweeney single, off Blue Jays starter Kyle Drabek. After Will Middlebrooks drove in Jarrod Saltalamacchia and moved Sweeney to third with a single to right, Punto doubled to score Sweeney and make it 2-0 Red Sox.
With Middlebrooks and Punto on second and third, Daniel Nava then hit a line drive at Colby Rasmus in center field. The ball hit Rasmus in the glove and fell to the turf, and both Middlebrooks and Punto scored, putting the Red Sox up 4-0.
The play could’ve easily been ruled an error, but instead it was a called a two-RBI single.
Punto also singled in the top of the seventh but advanced no farther than second base, then homered in the ninth to make it 7-4 Boston. Facing reliever Carlos Villanueva, Punto crushed a 2-0 fastball into the second deck overlooking right field for his first home run of the season.
The Red Sox also scored single runs in the fourth and eighth. Middlebrooks ground into a double play with none out in the fourth, but Kevin Youkilis, who had doubled and advanced to third on an a throwing error two batters earlier, still scored to extend their lead to 5-1. And Sweeney grounded out softly to first base with the bases loaded in the eighth, scoring David Ortiz for a 6-3 lead.
The extra runs in the middle innings helped starter Felix Doubront, who ran into trouble several times during the game. Though his combination of inside fastballs and sweeping outside breakers and cutters worked effectively on lefties, Doubront had far less success with righties. Of the seven hits Doubront gave up, five – including two solo homers – came against right-handed hitters.
Still, Doubront pitched 6.1 innings for the first time in almost a month, striking out seven with just one walk. He earned his team-best sixth win of the season, improving to 6-2, while Drabek fell to 4-6. In four career starts against the Red Sox, Drabek is now 1-2 with a 7.29 ERA.
Doubront also did a tremendous job of refocusing and bearing down. After catcher Jeff Mathis homered in the third and the Blue Jays loaded the bases on back-to-back-to-back singles, Doubront got Rasmus to pop out harmlessly to third. After second baseman Kelly Johnson (the only lefty to hit Doubront Saturday) cut Boston’s lead to 5-2 with an RBI single in the fourth, Doubront stranded two base runners with an easy fielder’s choice.
And when right fielder Jose Bautista led off the fifth with his 13th home run of the season, Doubront set the next three Blue Jays down 1-2-3 on 10 pitches.
Bobby Valentine had plenty of fresh arms to work with after Clay Buchholz’s eight-inning start Friday, getting 2.2 innings from four relievers who combined to allow just one unearned run on two hits and a strikeout. Matt Albers retired his two batters in the bottom of the seventh before giving up a lead-off single in the eighth, and Andrew Miller then took care of Rasmus on one pitch.
Vicente Padilla came on with Edwin Encarnacion on and one out in the eighth and gave up a single to third baseman Brett Lawrie. Sweeney fielded Lawrie’s hit, but he held the ball too long while trying to throw it back into the infield, and the ball skipped along the turf into no man’s land. The throwing error allowed Encarnacion to score from second and cut Boston’s lead to 6-4, while Lawrie moved up a base.
Padilla didn’t crack, however, getting his next batter on two pitches. Lawrie then oddly tried to steal third base, but Saltalamacchia threw a strike to Youkilis to nail Lawrie and end the inning.
Alfredo Aceves needed just 13 pitches to record his 14th save, setting Toronto down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth.