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Monday, March 18, 2013

Can Lester and Red Sox withstand power outage?

Lester has Sox fans tickled green with excitement.

Pitching and timely hitting. The Red Sox are getting plenty of both this spring training, but will it be enough if they can't hit the ball out of the park?

It was on Sunday, when the green-clad Sox got six perfect innings from Jon Lester and allowed just one ninth-inning infield hit in a 5-1 victory over the Rays at Jet Blue Park. The big left-hander and projected staff ace is now 3-0 with an 0.90 ERA, six hits allowed, and 16 strikeouts in 20 Grapefruit League innings. 

Those numbers are very encouraging, and he is just one of numerous Boston pitchers having a terrific exhibition season as the staff aims to rebound from a dreadful 2012. Starters Lester, Clay Buchholz,and Ryan Dempster are a combined 6-1 with an 0.88 ERA, and even John Lackey is 2-0 with an improved physique and attitude. At least three of these guys should top last year's team "high" of 11 victories by Buchholz and Felix Doubront.
Simon Says Buchholz (left), Lester  are ready to roll.

The relief pitching, including Daniel Bard(!), has been solid as well, and the staff ERA of 3.54 leads all of baseball during spring training (their WHIP of 1.25 is second-best). Having former pitching coach John Farrell back as manager is clearly making an impact on the staff. 

But on the other side of the ball, so to speak, is a stat that jumps out as cause for potential concern. Through 23 exhibition games, the Red Sox have hit 13 homers -- tied with the Brewers for LAST of all 30 MLB teams.

Sure, this is spring training, and you can throw the numbers out once the real games start. However, there is no denying that while the Red Sox have turned in a solid 13-9-1 record in Fort Myers, they've done so without the power that has been their calling card for much of the last decade.
Jonny Gomes -- 20-homer potential.

The Sox have hit their fair share of clutch non-homers, often with men in scoring position, and this was the case again Sunday when Jonny Gomes notched 4 RBI with two singles and a double. Putting the ball over Green Monster South or anywhere else outside the field of play has been another story.

How are their AL East rivals doing by comparison this spring? Toronto, heralded by many experts as the most-improved club in baseball, has 23 homers including 4 from Andy LaRoche and 3 from Jose Bautista (no Red Sox has more than 2). The Orioles, who are projected to fall back to earth a bit after their surprising 2012, have 26. Interestingly, the Rays (15) and Yankees (14) are just above Boston and Milwaukee at the bottom of the charts.

Injuries are partly to blame for the power outage. Boston's best home run hitter, David Ortiz, has been out of the lineup the entire exhibition schedule with a bad heel. New York, meanwhile, has been minus its two top power threats -- injured first baseman Mark Teixeira and outfielder Curtis Granderson. The Yanks, in fact, will enter Opening Day versus the Red Sox on April 1 at the Stadium without 8 of the 10 players who hit double-digit homers for them in 2012; five are no longer with the club and three (Teixeira, Granderson, and Alex Rodriguez) are on the DL. 

The Red Sox, meanwhile, have plenty of their own question marks when it comes to power. Ortiz was on pace for 40 homers when he went down last summer, and his inability to even run on his bad heel two days in a row this spring has been a huge disappointment to management -- which signed Big Papi to a two-year contract hoping he could anchor the middle of the order through 2014.

Big Papi and son wait for his heel to heal.

Take Ortiz out of the lineup, at least for April, and you have just two other players with 30-homer seasons on their resumes: Mike Napoli and Jacoby Ellsbury. Both may be long shots this year. Napoli had 30 in 2011, but has had trouble staying healthy. Ellsbury had a fantastic 32-homer-39-steal year in 2011, but he too was injured for half of 2012 with a bad shoulder and hit just 4 homers in 66 games after his return -- leaving many to speculate that he has lost some of his power. 

What does it all mean? Are the Red Sox capable of competing as they did in 1990, when they won an AL East title with just one player -- Ellis Burks at 21 -- hitting more than 15 homers? There is no Roger Clemens in his prime atop this rotation, but Lester and Co. may keep the Sox in the hunt even if Papi and Ellsbury can't return to form.
Napoli hopes to get out of the cage, onto the field.

Red Sox fans would just prefer not to have to find out.

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