While pondering whether Clay Buchholz will start the 7th inning, I can’t help but think that—God forbid—this 2013 Red Sox team is shaping up to be a likeable, possibly successful, and maybe even memorable one. As for Buchholz (I write this during the bottom of the 6th), I want to see him on the mound for one more inning. He’s thrown 90 pitches, and if he wants to sit at the grown ups table, he’s going to have to complete a 7-inning, 100-pitch start. If throwing 15 extra pitches today really means that he’ll be worn down come time for the playoff race, then neither he nor the Sox really deserve to be there.
Don’t worry, I’m not going overboard and predicting 93 wins and a deep playoff run. The Sox are off to a nice 4-2 start, with pleasantly surprising series victories over division foes Yankees and Blue Jays. (Update: after the Sox were put down quickly in the 6th, Clay is on the mound for the 7th). Some of the offseason acquisitions have played well, namely Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara, and Joel “Hanny” Hanrahan. Guys that were brought in to be leaders in the club house are also leading on the field, which, again, has been a pleasant surprise. There’s Jose Iglesias hitting better than anyone thought he would. Jackie Bradley Jr, despite struggling at the plate, has been somewhat of a must-watch. Given all that, and the strong starts by Lester and Buchholz, I still don’t see them going over 85 wins.
Let’s put the prediction game aside for a moment, though, because today is Opening Day at Fenway Park, assuredly one of the greatest days on the calendar. This team is establishing itself as a likeable one. First and foremost on the likeability front is the man who will call the shots day to day. Out is Robert Valentine, who you probably won’t catch walking the Freedom Trail or posing for pictures in the Common anytime soon. (Update: Buchholz overcame a walk in the 7th to finish with a strong line: 7IP, 3H, 4BB, 0R, 8K). In at manager is John Farrell, former Sox pitching coach turned Blue Jays manager turned Sox manager. On the surface, it’d seem like Farrell left a potentially great situation in Toronto, where they’ve loaded up on talent, to come to a dicier situation in Boston, which isn’t quite sure what it has, talent-wise. But the expectations in Toronto are sky (Dome) high, while the expectations in Boston are such that a .500 season will be considered a success, something to build on. Having coached in Boston for four years, Farrell is comfortable in his new digs, and knows precisely how to handle his players, the media, and the fans. To say that Bobby V had difficulties in those departments is to say that John Lackey has difficulty staying healthy.
Speaking of which, I won’t pick on the “big righty,” which is what people are calling him to make him sound more folksy and endearing, rather than calling him “a grand larcenist who took $80 million from the Red Sox.” I was actually looking forward to the Lackey Redemption Tour 2103 and hoping for 10-12 wins and an ERA in the low 4’s (before he got injured in start #1). Yes, that’d be a successful season for him, in the same way that “The Canyons” simply getting a wide release will be considered a success for Lindsay Lohan’s comeback. We’re not aiming for much here, just a winning record. But even Lackey has done his part to improve the team’s image, mainly by keeping his mouth shut, working hard to rehab from Tommy John, and allegedly being an excellent tipper. Lackey aside, the staff should benefit from a re-focused Lester and Buchholz, and while Dempster will likely struggle in the AL East, he’s a “clubhouse guy” who’s contributing to the attitude makeover.
Combine the rehabilitated image of the pitching staff with new signings like Victorino, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, and David Ross, and you’ve got a strong clubhouse with potential for great chemistry. Until, you know, Gomes starts to get pissed about not playing every day. Then again, I don’t think Ortiz is quite right, so I’m penciling Gomes into the DH spot until Memorial Day. Regardless, Gomes has brought his positive attitude and infectious personality to a team desperately in need of one. Lastly, you add Bradley’s youth, dynamism, and humility, and at the very least, you get 25 guys who genuinely enjoy playing with and for each other.
Playing in what many consider the strongest, deepest division in baseball, it’s a bit early to get excited about a World Series run. But 4-2 is a nice start, and, to update again, it’s NAVA TIME at Fenway, as Daniel Nava hit a 3-run shot to put Clay Buchholz in line for a win if Andrew Bailey and Hanrahan can deliver. I’m never one to let the optimism flow unchecked, but there’s reason to believe these guys can squeak into the playoffs. Who’s got a better bullpen in the division? And that’s without Daniel Bard, who, had he not tried to overstep his limitations and try becoming a starter last year, would likely be an elite closer at this point in his career. He’s currently getting his mojo back in Double-A Portland (no word if the Kennebunk zumba instructor is making weekly trips up to Portland to help) and figures to help the big club later this spring. The lineup has gotten it done so far, and should only improve as Bradley gets more comfortable and Ortiz comes back (hopefully sooner rather than later). So yeah, this team isn’t likely to win 100 games, and while I’m hesitant to move the needle from mid-80s, looking at the way they’ve carried themselves and the way the bullpen has put them in position to steal games, it’s not unreasonable to think 90-plus wins.
Will we remember the 2013 Red Sox? I’d like to think so. Sure, we remember every team, for better or worse. The World Series teams aside, there were the ’03 and ’08 teams that fell just short, the ’09 team that crumbled in the playoffs and led to the bridge year in ’10, which really might be the most forgettable year in recent Sox history. And the past two years go without saying. So what might we remember this team for? A few things come to mind: a manager who’s sane…the emergence of Bradley as an everyday MLB player…Ortiz returning from injury to build on his legacy…Lester and Buchholz rebounding and jumping to the next level…Lackey redeeming himself…a manager who’s sane…a bullpen holding leads and keeping the team in games…exciting prospects like Brentz, Webster, and Bogaerts on the verge of breaking through…a manager who’s sane…and maybe even a playoff appearance.
And what do you know? As I write this, Hanrahan, despite blowing the shutout, finished off the Orioles and cued The Standells. The Sox move to 5-2 and have, thus far, more than held their own with the rest of the AL East, which appears to be more of a dog fight than anyone thought it’d be. Boston won on Opening Day and sent the crowd home happy, which is always a great first step towards repairing relations with the fan base. Hey, maybe that semi-legitimate (and that’s being nice) sellout streak will continue into May, something ownership has said will not happen. And maybe, just maybe, the Sox will forget all the baggage of the past two years and just keep playing fun, inspired baseball, all the way through the summer and into the postseason. Fine, it may not be probable, but it’s Opening Day at Fenway Park, the one day of the year where even the most hardcore pessimists among us have free reign to experiment with this strange idea of optimism.