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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Signs of life -- but still concerns -- as Red Sox hit the road

Like the weather, the Sox have yet to heat up.

Before Big Papi's big blast yesterday bailed them out, the Red Sox were a few outs (and a few feet) away from a 1-5 homestand to start the Fenway Park season. As David Ortiz and his mates head into Yankee Stadium hoping the good vibes can continue, here are some reasons to believe -- and be concerned -- about what we've seen from John Farrell's team so far:

The starting pitching has been (mostly) very good. Jake Peavy was the best he's ever been for Boston yesterday, and he, Jon Lester, and John Lackey have all shined in the early going. Felix Doubront turned in one stinker, but he's always going to be up and down. The biggest anxiety, of course, surrounds Clay Buchholz, but Farrell insists his woeful debut was due more to fixable control issues than the shoulder woes that put him on the shelf for three months last season. Tonight's start versus the Yanks will show us more. 

Can Peavy keep it up? It would be nice.

Double plays have been a killer. Last season the Red Sox made a living playing opportunistic baseball. This year they've blown a lot of opportunities due to twin killings. The Sox have grounded into a MLB-worst 17 double plays, nearly three times the league average of 6, including five in the first six innings of Tuesday's 10-7 loss to Texas. This is one place the Sox really miss Jacoby Ellsbury's speed, but even plodders should be able to refrain from hitting grounders to the left side with men on base.

Even when slumping, they're getting on base. You can't hit into double plays if you don't get on base, of course, and the Sox are getting on nearly as well as ever. Their on-base-percentage of .349 ranks fourth in the majors and just .004 behind AL-leading Minnesota, and they are doing it with a largely patchwork offense due to the injuries to Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks. When these two return, and the New England weather heats up, the OBP should rise higher still.

Fly ball to Nava...hold your breath.

Outfield defense has been shaky. Last year Boston had Gold Glovers Ellsbury (CF) and Victorino (RF) plugging the gaps; this year, with Ellsbury gone and Victorino on the DL, the Sox have gone primarily with Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr. in center and Daniel "Every Fly an Adventure" Nava in right. The drop-off has been considerable; while Sizemore and Bradley have both made nice plays, they lack Ellsbury's running speed and years of institutional knowledge. Hopefully they will get a better feel for Fenway and Victorino can take Nava out of his misery.

Learning on the job, Bradley is starting to shine.

We've seen the future, and it's exciting. Win or lose, still-official rookies Bradley and Xander Bogaerts have been a joy to watch. Bradley has great baseball senses, and is coming around at the plate -- including in the clutch. His game against Texas Monday was a thing of beauty, and while he works on making such events a regular occurrence, Bogaerts appears to already be there. Poised and polished well beyond his 21 years, he appears enroute to a freshman season somewhere between the Rookie of the Year campaigns turned in by Dustin Pedroia in 2007 and Nomar Garciaparra in 1997. 

We've also seen a bit of a World Series hangover. Although the near-comeback from an early 8-0 deficit Tuesday and yesterday's win are encouraging, Boston has played largely lifeless baseball in the early going. The three-game sweep at the hands of the Brewers felt like 2012, right down to the large sections of empty seats in the late innings. This, perhaps more than anything else, is troubling.

Will the fire-in-their-eyes Sox of 2013 show up tonight at Yankee Stadium? We shall see.

Sox need to tap their beard-bonding energy.

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