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BOS@TOR: Punto goes 3-for-4, flirts with cycle

TORONTO -- Even with Dustin Pedroia reduced to spectator status for the better part of the last week, the Red Sox continue to win games.

The best way a team can survive without its most indispensable player is for a different hero to emerge on a near daily basis.

It happened again on Saturday, and this time it was the man filling in for Pedroia who took center stage. Backed by a three-hit effort by popular utility man Nick Punto, who finished a triple short of a cycle, the Red Sox upended the Blue Jays, 7-4, at Rogers Centre.

Fittingly, the game ended with Punto ranging toward the middle and making a nice throw to retire Kelly Johnson.

In many ways, this was Punto's day.

With the Red Sox clinging to a two-run lead in the top of the ninth, it was Punto who belted a solo shot into the second deck in right field to provide some breathing room.

When Punto returned to the dugout, his teammates jokingly ignored him. Manager Bobby Valentine then came at him with double high-fives, and the players came over with different greetings.

"Good old silent treatment," quipped Punto. "That was fun. I said, 'Come give me some love.' I've been playing this game a while, but that's only my 15th [career] home run."

Punto home runs are roughly a yearly occurrence. This was his first one of 2012. He had one in each of the last three seasons. His career high, four, was recorded back in 2005.

But the Red Sox didn't get him because of his power. They got him because of his versatility and his infectious clubhouse presence.

The veteran had struggled until Sunday's breakout performance, perhaps a product of being used sparingly until Pedroia went down with a torn adductor muscle in his right thumb on May 28.

"For me, this is definitely a change," said Punto. "I've been a utility player in the past, but being able to play in the National League, and even for [Ron] Gardenhire [with the Twins], I played quite a bit. Here there's Kevin Youkilis and Pedroia. These guys play every day. It's something I'm going to have to get used to and embrace that role."

One thing Punto will never do is complain. You'd be much more likely to see him giving Pedroia a hard time.

"Yeah, I've been talking to him," Punto said. "I've been telling him, 'You better hurry up'. We have a good time. He's been all over me, too."

While Punto was turning in a strong performance at the plate, lefty Felix Doubront was again standing out from the mound.

Doubront went 6 1/3 innings, allowing seven hits and three runs, two of which were earned. He walked one and struck out seven in producing his seventh quality start of the season, which ties him with Josh Beckett for the staff lead. Penciled in as a fourth or fifth starter when the season opened, Doubront (6-2, 3.75 ERA) has been Boston's most consistent starter.

"He does it in different ways. Today he showed that he was a good pitcher because he was able to win the game without having his best stuff," said Valentine. "His 1-2 count wasn't present today, and that's usually his trademark. He was behind hitters, getting three balls on hitters and still getting them out at times. The fourth inning, he came up with a good curveball, started throwing it and figured out a way to keep us in the game to win the game."

Once Doubront departed, the bullpen did the job again, recording the final eight outs.

The Red Sox (28-25) have won five of their last six games and 16 of the last 22, and for the first time all season are in sole possession of fourth place in the American League East. The Blue Jays now occupy last place all by themselves.

It's hard to believe this is the same team that had everyone in a panic about a few weeks back. Now the winning feeling is palpable to anyone in the clubhouse.

"It's a good group of guys," Valentine said. "I said it before, it's worth repeating, they don't make excuses and they don't play the game before they go out there. They just play it one pitch at a time, one inning at a time. It doesn't mean we can't score because the third and fourth hitters aren't coming up. It doesn't mean we can't score because Dustin's not in there. Every inning, I think, we have a chance to score."

In this one, the biggest offensive sequence took place in the second inning, when the Sox struck for four runs, all of which scored with two outs against Blue Jays starter Kyle Drabek.

Will Middlebrooks got the first run home in the second with an RBI single to right. Punto smashed a double to right, bringing in Ryan Sweeney. And Daniel Nava came through yet again, smacking a two-run single up the middle.

"I just had one bad inning -- two outs and I just left the ball up to a few batters, and they were able to hit them," Drabek said.

The score stayed 4-0 until the bottom of the third, when Jeff Mathis drilled a solo homer to right-center with one out.

The fourth inning got off to a promising start, with Youkilis ripping a double to right and moving to third on a throwing error by Jose Bautista. After Sweeney drew a walk, Middlebrooks hit into a double play, with Youkilis scoring from third to make it 5-1.

Youkilis has looked revived since coming off the DL.

"Youk is back," Valentine said. "He's having those good at-bats. That line drive off the top of the right-field wall, line drive to the shortstop, he's walking, taking the count to 3-2, taking his walk, playing third and first, he's very valuable to this team."

The Red Sox have a lot of players these days who carry that distinction.

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