The Boston Red Sox came out of the gate in 2014 looking like the chumps of 2012, rather than the champs of 2013. Clay Bucholz and Felix Dubront had episodes of wildness and went early to the showers. David Ross and A. J. Pierczinski chased a number of pitches around the backstop, looking very much like catchers who had been crossed up by their battery-mates. The wunderkind Xander Bogaerts was handcuffed by several tough chances at shortstop, making us long for Jose Iglesias. Dustin Pedroia, through no fault of his own, was given an error for losing the ball in the transfer for the double play. Major League baseball later ruled that the botched transfer should have been an out at second. It’s been that kind of spring.
The defensive ineptness could have been offset by some timely hitting, but the Red Sox exceeded their own records for leaving men on base. They squeezed out a run here and there, but never had a big inning. Despite some early promise from Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley, the outfield was among the most unproductive in baseball. Daniel Nava was so mired in a slump that he earned himself a trip to Pawtucket. David Ortiz showed running track power by flying out to center field on a regular basis.
And like 2012, there were some bright spots: sterling starts from John Lester and John Lackey, some plate discipline, along with power by Mike Napoli, and the emergence of Brock Holt as a clutch hitter following his call-up from Pawtucket. These early bloomers kept the Red Sox from disgrace in the first twenty games of the season. Except for one blow-up against the Yankees, Lester proved himself the leader of the pitcher rotation. My apologies for doubting his early season prowess. I have to eat some words I wrote earlier about Clay Bucholz leading the rotation. Bucholz is a work in progress.
After a series of thrashings from the Yankees, you could be forgiven for thinking the Red Sox have returned to chumpionship form, but here’s some perspective. A. J. Pierczinski and David Ross are not going to box pitches around for the rest of the season. They are experienced and talented receivers. Xander Bogaerts will only improve as he gets more time at shortstop, instead of subbing at third base. David Ortiz will get his timing back and will start blistering the ball, as he often does in May. And Will Middlebrooks will return from the disabled list to his remarkable spring discipline of hitting the ball where it’s pitched. Both Middlebrooks and Shane Victorino were in the line-up Friday night as the Red Sox mauled the Toronto Blue Jays 8-2.
Except for the remarkable 2013 season, April is the cruelest month for the Red Sox. Timing is ugly, both for hitters and fielders, as hitters swing late and fielders are batting at balls in play. Starters suddenly lose the strike zone, and the relievers center the ball with disastrous results. And the injuries! Middlebrooks, Victorino, Pedroia, Napoli all abusing their bodies by hustling too much too early. Yes, both Napoli and Pedroia jammed their fingers on the base paths, but disdained the bench and played anyway.
So forget April and anticipate May as the Red Sox get their act together. Their rotation is solid in the first three spots, and they have three potential center fielders in Sizemore, Bradley and Victorino. Nava will return with a vengeance. And John Farrell is still out-guessing the competition with safety and suicide squeezes to score runs, when the runs were few and far between. Those two bright moments are reminders of what the Red Sox can be and what they will be in the second lap–winners who play all the angles that baseball offers as the season stretches out.