By Sean McAdam
NEW YORK - There were, of course, no celebrations or back-slapping in the Red Sox clubhouse late Sunday night.
True, the Red Sox had finished off a sweep of the New York Yankees, capped by a 7-5 victory, a win which left them with a 20-20 record and enabled them to reach the elusive .500 mark.
But for a team established as the consensus favorite in the division, burnished with a 165 million payroll, this was no monumental achievement. Rather than letting loose with a congratulatory cheer, the night called for a sigh of relief.
"It actually feels good," said Terry Francona with a slight hint of self-consciousness. "This is not really what our goal is. But we're making strides. We played a good series."
Mediocrity, at last.
And yet, however modest the accomplishment, it hadn't been easy.
Three times previously, they had been within a game of .500, only to lose the next game, as if the break-even point was some carrot at the end of a stick they could not quite grasp.
When they tripped over themselves at the start, going 0-6 en route to a 2-10 record, Francona warned it would take some time to clean up the mess they had made. But surely not even Francona thought that it would take more than six weeks.
In a sense, the Sox had spent the first month-and-a-half running uphill, a sort of extended spring training. They were fortunate that no one in the division sprinted too far ahead, allowing them to keep within three games of first place in the American League East.
As they had last month, the Yankees had served as a catalyst -- rather than an obstacle - for the Red Sox. Typically, these series bring out the best in both teams, but in two series now, the meetings have boosted only the Red Sox, who have dominated their rivals, winning five of six.
"It's definitely a positive," said Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who chipped in with two hits, including his first homer of the season, Sunday night. "But we can't focus on trying to get to .500 or trying to get through this week. We've got to focus on the next game.
"I think that's what we tried to do too early. We thought about what we were going to do, instead of just going out there and playing. That's what we starting to do - play game-by-game."
The schedule offers them an opportunity. Thirteen of the next 20 games are at Fenway, and of those 20, just nine of those are against teams with winning records.
Now would be a good time for the Sox to go on the kind of roll they experienced in late April - when they went 8-1- and build some actual progress.
Not that they are without some remaining issues. Until back-end starters John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka gain some consistency, it will be difficult to sustain any forward momentum.
And it would help for the offense to begin fully clicking, enough to at least occasionally overcome some less-than-quality outings from their starters. To date, the Sox have averaged slightly less than 4.5 runs per game, hardly the kind of powerhouse attack they expected.
Still, as they packed for home, there was the feeling that, at last, they were ready to engage. Like back-of-the-pack marathoners, they had taken a long time just to reach the starting line.
"It's not what we're shooting for," emphasized Francona of the break-even point. "But we're coming. We're getting better."
Much later than expected, it should be noted. But better, nonetheless.
Forty games in, it's a start.