ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- On Friday in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse, Mookie Betts spoke to the media after getting Boston's biggest hit of the young season, a go-ahead homer that not only sparked a 6-4 series-opening win over the Tampa Bay Rays, but also awakened the MVP-winning outfielder. The level-headed star, who rarely displays emotion on the field, continuously pumped his fist while circling the bases.
As Betts spoke after the game, recapping the evening's festivities, shortstop Xander Bogaerts peeked into the scrum, crossed his arms and spread a big smile across his face. Betts smirked. The Boston clubhouse had its swag back, energy that the Red Sox hadn't shown frequently through the first two weeks of the season, as the team hobbled to a 6-13 record entering a quick Florida trip to play the first-place team of the American League East.
The three-game sweep of the Rays marked the first time this season the defending world champs have looked like, well, the defending world champs rather than the team treading water at the bottom of the division standings. Moment after moment, the Red Sox delivered in spots they had failed in through the first two weeks of the season.
Most importantly, it provided the perfect blueprint for what the Red Sox need to do to continue their arduous climb up the standings.
"We have to go home and keep getting better," manager Alex Cora said. "That's what we have to do."
The Red Sox came into the weekend series needing to course correct as they ranked 18th in baseball in total offense and 30th in team ERA. Through 19 games, the Red Sox had the worst run differential ever for a defending World Series champion. Boston didn't do much to cut into that run differential -- they're still minus-38 on the season -- but they're no longer in last place, one game above the Baltimore Orioles, and are five games out of the division lead, still held by Tampa Bay.
With Nathan Eovaldi on the injured list, out with loose bodies in his right throwing elbow, the Red Sox rotation will need to step up to fill the void left by the flame-throwing righty. This weekend, Eduardo Rodriguez, Rick Porcello and David Price all did their part, giving the Red Sox's offense an opportunity to outscore the Rays, allowing a total of seven earned runs in the three starts. Tampa Bay entered the weekend with the best run differential in baseball.
"It was big for us after we lost two games in New York," Price said. "And then to come here against one of the best two teams in the American League right now and to win three in a row, that was big for us."
Coming off a series where the offense struggled whenever the team needed a run, the Red Sox came through in a series sweep in which just four runs separated the teams over three games.
Betts and Mitch Moreland hit long, go-ahead homers in the eighth inning of the series-opening 6-4 win, marking the first signs of life for the offense. Michael Chavis' long double (and first major league hit) with a runner on first set up Andrew Benintendi's sacrifice fly, which scored the go-ahead run in Saturday's 6-5 victory. Christian Vazquez's go-ahead sacrifice fly in the 11th inning followed a Rafael Devers single, a Chavis walk and a Jackie Bradley Jr. sacrifice bunt that helped set up a 4-3 victory in the series finale.
Boston capitalized twice against Rays reliever Jose Alvarado, who entered the series with 16 strikeouts in 9⅓ scoreless innings this season, knocking in the winning runs against the stud bullpen arm in the second and third games of the series.
"They have a really good pitcher on the mound in Alvarado, so runs are at a premium," Bradley said. "You want to do everything you possibly can to make it tough and difficult on him."
It's still just April and there are 140 games left in the Red Sox season. Boston has now won seven of its past 12 games after starting the season 2-8. It's why especially in the early part of the season, the team hasn't paid attention to the headlines, some of which have fans inching closer to the panic button.
That panic didn't reach the Red Sox.
"We aren't worried about outside of this clubhouse," Price said. "We know the type of team we have inside of this clubhouse, and I think we showed that the last three days."