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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Bradley Jr. and Red Sox work at "restoring the faith"

Jackie Bradley Jr.: Great so far.

Maybe you caught the ad on A determined-looking David Ortiz stares out on one side of the page as a message flashes across the other:


It's starting to look more and more like Ortiz and his aching achilles will not be there for the first of those 162 chances, but there are plenty of other players who are helping get fans excited again this spring training after the worst stretch of Red Sox baseball since Billy Herman and Pinky Higgins.

Jackie Bradley Jr. has been the talk of Fenway South, with a .500 average (10-for-20) and terrific defensive work in center field. Manager John Farrell has said Bradley is not likely to make the team out of camp because he wants him to get regular at-bats in the minors rather than ride the pine in the big leagues. Still, it's good to know that Bradley -- who hit a combined .315/.482/.911 with 42 doubles and 24 steals at Salem and Portland last year -- is waiting in the wings if incumbent centerfielder and pending free agent Jacoby Ellsbury winds up hurt or elsewhere.

Allen Webster can bring some heat.

A highly-touted prospect for the Dodgers picked up in last summer's blockbuster trade, right-hander Allen Webster was also slated for Pawtucket this year but is making a good case to stick with the big club. He's struck out 11 and walked just one over eight innings, and is throwing his fastball 98 miles an hour. Like old friend Derek Lowe, Webster also has a very nice breaking pitch that induces lots of ground balls, and he seldom is hurt by the home run -- last year allowing just two homers in 131 innings.

On the other end of the experience spectrum among incoming pitchers, Ryan Dempster has looked impressive on the mound and off. He has not walked a batter in his first three starts, and in one outing threw 25 of 28 pitches for strikes. The 16-year MLB veteran is also just the type of free spirit innings-eater this staff may need to keep things loose; since he wasn't here for the meltdowns, he shouldn't be under pressure to rebound. If he wins his 12-15 games, everyone will be happy.

Napoli is fitting in fine.

Mike Napoli may not be the big-name guy Sox fans hoped to see the team acquire to take up the first base slot, and the non-stop talk about his degenerative hip and pending contract only made things worse. But Napoli has shown good pop early on and is chasing down balls left and right. His hip appears to be fine.

Among the holdovers, Dustin Pedroia has looked great with a .412 average in Grapefruit League play. The little second baseman with the big heart and bat is the kind of guy you love to watch at any time of year -- along the lines of a Trot Nixon or Rick Burleson. You can tell how much he cares about winning; his emotion is the real deal and not just macho bravado.

Jon Lester: Early results positive.

Lefty Jon Lester has also been terrific, first by being appropriately remorseful to reporters and fans about his forgettable 2012 season, and then by holding opponents to a .103 average over his first three starts and nine innings. Clay Buchholz, another guy eager to put last year behind him, has looked sharp too and free of the hamstring pain that derailed him last summer. Any talk of a winning season in '13 starts with these two guys at the top of the rotation, so it's crucial that both get off to good starts.

As for John Lackey, well, his uniform certainly fits better than last year. Whether a reduced waistline results in a reduced ERA, however, remains to be seen (and early outings have not been very promising). Farrell is confident Lackey can rebound well from Tommy John surgery, and general manager Ben Cherington is counting on Big John starting 25 to 30 of those 162 aforementioned chances. Still, if fans are counting on this pitcher to restore their faith, it may be a long summer.

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