BRADENTON, Fla. — The start to Red Sox spring training wasn’t that good. Fourteen errors over the first 10 games. Thirty-seven walks, a 5.46 team ERA, a .227 team batting average, and a .307 on-base percentage.
While it’s widely accepted that spring training records don’t mean anything, that thinking is a little antiquated. It meant something last season to the Red Sox, didn’t it?
The Sox started their team building right away and had an excellent spring training, and it led to a 20-8 start, 97 wins, the American League East title, the AL pennant, and a World Series championship.
There was a tremendous crescendo to the season.
Should we be concerned?
“This team is so confident,” said a scout watching the Red Sox in their 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates Sunday in which they did look good to improve to 3-7-1.
“It’s not showtime yet. That’s a team that can flip the switch and they’ll be good. They have so much belief in what they can do.”
The 2005 and 2008 teams also had some bravado. They, too, were confident after winning the World Series, though injuries were a factor in derailing both. So confidence doesn’t always make the difference.
We all understand last year at this time and this year at this time. Last year the team was coming off 69 wins, had just signed eight players, and had a new manager and coaching staff.
That it meshed so quickly was an aberration.
This time, manager John Farrell and his staff wanted to ease players back into playing shape after the short winter, the pitchers in particular, so as not to hurt them.
So Farrell had some of the heavy hitters start their throwing programs in simulated games rather than real-time action.
Clay Buchholz broke loose from those chains Sunday vs. the Pirates and pitched three scoreless, no-hit innings, looking very much in midseason form. Andrew Miller struck out the side in the fourth after walking the bases loaded in his previous outing.
The Red Sox had only three everyday players on the trip, continuing with their minimalistic theme. But with Buchholz pitching well, Jackie Bradley Jr. stroking a big two-run single, and Mike Carp homering, it actually felt as if the Red Sox were snapping out of their doldrums.
They no-hit the Pirates for six-plus innings. They didn’t beat themselves.
The night before in the nightcap of a split-squad game vs. the Orioles, the team made six errors in a performance out of “The Bad News Bears.” It was unbecoming of a World Series champion.
Farrell said he’s been pleased with certain individual performances, but he expects a better result once the team is able to get its regular lineup and pitching staff out there on a consistent basis.
Shane Victorino had one more day of baseball workouts Sunday, and how he came out of that would determine whether he would get back to the lineup Monday or Tuesday. Victorino has not participated in game action yet, taking it slow after hand surgery in the offseason.
Victorino provides us with a good example of what many think about spring training, starting 0 for 9 last season and playing poorly in the World Baseball Classic.
“I never put a whole lot of stock in spring training,” catcher David Ross said. “I never have a good spring training. I think spring training is a good time time for guys to get their work in. If guys feel comfortable to get their work in, that’s the main thing.”
“When the younger guys go down and there’s a smaller group, you’ll see things clean up a bit,” Ross added. “I hope.”
Ross remembers Victorino’s struggles last spring and feeling, “I know people are saying, ‘Who is this guy?’ But I knew him and I knew what kind of a player he was. Sure enough, season starts and he’s raking.”
Grady Sizemore will see his first back-to-back action Monday and Tuesday. His presence should help.
“We’ve had a number of guys who have shown very well in camp, individual performances are the things that stand out, yet personally we have yet to get our team together,” Farrell said.
“We’ve had the majority of our team together on home games, but when we start to go in this next turn in the rotation and get our starters in synch with everyday players, as we saw with Felix [Doubront] on the mound the other day, there’s a more consistent flow to the game. We play a much cleaner game in those situations.”
About his different approach after winning a World Series, Farrell said, “We’ve taken a little different approach with the first outings in the rotation. We’ve done some simulated game action, where you ease into the intensity. It’ll be more earnest the next time through.”
Farrell isn’t into spring training records, though he stressed that winning is always important.
“I look at what our needs are right now,” he said. “The roster and personnel changes from year to year. It’s how we prepare that’s the most important. Look back to a year ago, we played consistently in spring training. We got off to a very good start. We’re a third of the way through the game schedule here, and we have work to do, there’s no doubt about it. But at the same time we’re seeing more of our normal team together.”
The top performers so far have been Sizemore (health, overall play) and Bryce Brentz (three homers, two great throws), shortstop Deven Marrero (great defense, hitting well), and lefties Doubront (six solid innings) and Drake Britton. It’s a sign that the Red Sox haven’t yet sprung loose with their best team.
Farrell, to his credit, hasn’t always liked what he’s seen and has said so, but he hasn’t shown panic, either. To our knowledge he’s not had to give his team a pep talk yet. Players walk around the clubhouse with “Turn The [Expletive] Page” shirts. There’s very little discussion about 2013 unless they’re asked about it, which is a healthy approach.
Some players, such as Mike Napoli, have kept their beards, while most either have shaved or moved on to the next thing.
The focal points of this camp have to be 1) monitoring the hunger meter; 2) Xander Bogaerts’s defense; 3) Will Middlebrooks’s overall play; 4) the health of Buchholz; 5) Sizemore’s comeback.
Bogaerts made a terrific relay to nail a runner at the plate Saturday night. He’s made some good plays on routine grounders. He can handle that. But some balls that would have been outs if Stephen Drew, Jose Iglesias, or Marrero were playing shortstop, have trickled through.
The early going feels different than last year. Plenty of time to recover, yes, but that recovery must come.
“As we get into this more, we have to get into the rhythm again,” Ross said. “That feeling of winning the day. That’s how we approached it last season.”
Yes, that feeling must come again.
It’s three weeks from showtime.