Schmuck: Will Red Sox get pay back or just lay back against Orioles?

Orioles defeated a largely anonymous Boston lineup, 4-2, Friday night

Mark Reynolds

Mark Reynolds collides with Boston's Dustin Pedroia during Friday night's game. (Getty Images / September 21, 2012)

BOSTON — The Orioles arrived at Fenway Park on Friday focused on continuing their march toward the playoffs. The Boston Red Sox were waiting, their focus and motivation an open question after a season gone terribly awry.

So, what exactly is anyone to expect of this three-game series or the one next weekend at Camden Yards with such important playoff implications for the Orioles and so little at stake for the Red Sox, other than the opportunity to make life less comfortable for the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year?

Payback or lay back?

The obvious answer would seem to be payback, and Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said Friday that the his team would like to "return the favor" for the indignity visited on it by the last-place Orioles on the final day of the 2011 regular season, but it's not really that simple.

The Red Sox parlayed that late-season collapse into a clubhouse scandal that sunk popular manager Terry Francona and carried right into the Bobby Valentine era, which — you might have noticed — is not off to an auspicious start. They entered the series 15 games under .500 and not even a shell of the team that looked so formidable after adding high-priced slugger Adrian Gonzalez two winters ago.

Everyone knows what happened. The front office decided to punt and recouped a ton of payroll by dealing Gonzalez, starting pitcher Josh Beckett, injured outfielder Carl Crawford and infielder Nick Punto to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Which brings us back to the original question and whether the Red Sox are even equipped to play the spoiler between now and next Sunday.

They certainly seemed to be Friday night, because they had serial Oriole killer Jon Lester on the mound, which usually trumps anything else that might be happening between these two teams. Lester came into the game with a 14-0 lifetime record against the O's, but he wasn't his usual stingy self at a time when he had to be, considering the Boston lineup not only was without all those players that escaped to L.A., but also offensive stars David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury.

In fact, former American League MVP Dustin Pedroia was the only player in a surprisingly anonymous offensive lineup with any real skin in what until last September was a very one-sided AL East rivalry, and he came into the game in an 0-for-16 slump.

Rookie Pedro Ciriaco was in the leadoff spot, and the lineup that once was studded with names like Gonzalez, Youkilis, Varitek and Ortiz instead featured four players with very big numbers on their backs.

Mind you, it's hard to gauge intangibles like motivation and desire when the opposing team has made a habit of playing — and winning — a highly unusual number of close, low-scoring games. The Orioles came into the series one day removed from back-to-back nights in Seattle in which they played a total of 29 innings, then flew a coast-to-coast red-eye and picked up right where they left off.

Orioles pitcher Miguel Gonzalez has made a lot of teams look flat during his surprising first season in the Orioles' rotation. He didn't appear to have the kind of shutdown stuff that would have similarly silenced the great Red Sox lineups of old, but he muffled the rebuilding Sox for 6 1/3 innings and turned the game over to the sturdy Orioles bullpen.

The Orioles did what they've been doing all year. They grinded out a modest offensive performance and waited for their pitching staff to make it stand up. They opened this nine-game road trip with a couple of tough losses in Oakland that cast doubt on whether they could stay on the heels of the first-place Yankees, then reeled off five straight victories under very difficult circumstances to assure themselves of a winning record on their final extended road trip of the season.

No matter what happens the rest of the weekend, the Red Sox cannot prevent that. They'll have five more opportunities over the next nine days to put some dents in the Orioles playoff run, but on Friday night they gave little indication that they are up to the task.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.

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