Dustin Pedroia’s mere presence is a home opener victory
In a pregame preamble of pomp and players from the past, the Red Sox received their 2018 World Series rings, the last hurrah of a historic 119-win season. It represented the final clinking of champagne glasses to toast 2018 before putting it behind them once and for all with the first game of 2019 at Fenway Park.
No one in a Red Sox uniform was more eager to move on from 2018 than Dustin Pedroia.
The home opener on Tuesday represents a time of renewal, both a fresh start and a return to the familiar. Tuesday was both for Pedroia, who played in just three games last year, limited by the aftermath of the cartilage restoration surgery he had on his left knee following the 2017 season. The chronic ailment threatened to end the Laser Show for good. But the gritty second baseman was back where he belonged on Fenway’s emerald lawn, a triumph of fortitude and determination over age and debilitating injury.
The Red Sox longest-tenured player seemed both grateful and humbled by his long, multi-surgery, anguished recovery road back.
“I was nervous. I’ve been working for 16 months just to get ready to do this,” said Pedroia, who finished 1 for 4 with a ninth-inning single. “Last year, I played three games. I don’t feel like I did last year. I’m going to be fine. I’m going to be able to play. I was excited. I didn’t sleep much. I enjoy playing, and I enjoy being a Red Sox. So, it was fun.”
Pedroia’s return to the lineup was the feel-good story of an otherwise gloomy home opener, as the scuffling Sox and their concerning ace, Chris Sale, dropped a 7-5 decision to the tanking Toronto Blue Jays. After going 3-8 on their hardball road trip from Hades to start the season, the Sox didn’t look any better on home turf, as the Jays ran circles around them on the basepaths, including a daring steal of home by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. If you had any doubt, 2018 is history, as relevant as a yellowed old issue of TV Guide.
This Sox team is going to need all the help it can get to turn things around, so having Pedroia — a four-time All-Star and Gold Glover, and former AL MVP — in the lineup often is appealing. It just may not be realistic. We’ll see how long Pedroia can last. The Sox set the target for Pedroia at 120 games. That feels optimistic. The heart roots for Pedroia, but the head says that at age 35 with a creaky left knee, the Sox need to handle him with care.
Manager Alex Cora was extremely coy when asked what the plan was for managing Pedroia. Still, Pedroia has made a career of making doubters eat their words. He stated his goal wasn’t to make it to this home opener. It was to make it through the final three years of the eight-year contract extension he signed in 2013, which still has $40 million left.
“I’ve seen him at his best. I’ve seen him whenever he is hurt just trying to play through stuff, trying to come back from stuff,” said shortstop Xander Bogaerts. “I’ve pretty much seen it all with him. One thing I can say is that anything he says is possible. Whatever he puts his mind towards, he can do.”
It was a momentous occasion for the Red Sox and Pedroia.
At 1:30 p.m., Pedroia — activated by the Sox on Tuesday — received his World Series ring. Batting seventh, Pedroia came to the plate in the second inning at 2:37 p.m., greeted by a standing ovation from the Fenway Faithful, the first time in 315 days he stepped into the Fenway batter’s box for game action (May 29, 2018, against Toronto). He had runners on the corners and nobody out. He grounded the second pitch he saw from Matt Shoemaker into a 6-4-3 double play that scored Bogaerts from third to give the Sox a 2-0 lead.
This was a theme for the profligate Sox. They were 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position and left six men on base. Pedroia led the way, 0 for 3 on RISP.
Pedroia stepped to the plate in the fourth inning with the Sox down, 5-2, and runners on the corners with two outs. The whole ballpark wanted to will that Hollywood moment for a guy who has always led the Sox in heart and hustle. He got down, 0-2, and grounded to shortstop. Pedroia came up in a one-run game in the sixth with the tying run in scoring position and two outs. He lined out to right field.
Pedroia admitted his emotions and the warm welcome back got the best of him in his first couple of at-bats.
“My first couple of at-bats, I was trying too hard, and I was kind of in a big spot,” he said. “I appreciate it so much. I think everyone knows what I’ve been going through and trying to come back from, so it means a lot.”
We got a taste of what the new normal is going to be with Pedroia in the top of the seventh, when he went down awkwardly after Teoscar Hernandez stole second base and clipped him. What was left of the 36,179 fans held its collective breath, waiting for Pedroia to get up.
Mitch Moreland came over looking concerned. Bogaerts asked him if he was hurt. It was the worst-case scenario. It was . . . a false alarm.
Hernandez’s cleat got caught on Pedroia’s shoelace, he said after the game. Pedroia has lost a step, but he hasn’t lost his trademark wit. When asked if his mind went to a dark place during the Teoscar Tangle:
“My knee can’t get any worse, so it’s going to be all right.”
We’ll know Pedroia is back when his at-bats are as sharp as his bon mots. That might take some more time. The Sox felt he needed more seasoning and they needed more proof that his knee could hold up after just 15 spring training plate appearances, so they sent him to Single A Greenville to continue his prep. Pedroia played in three games, logging 23 innings and batting .333 in 11 plate appearances.
Tuesday’s tableau in the Fens was fitting. A layer of fog descended on the Boston backdrop of the Old Green Lady, obscuring the skyline. A layer of fog has enveloped the Red Sox right now. But the return of Pedroia was a ray of sunshine on an otherwise gray and disappointing day. It was a start for a guy who wants to finish on his own terms.
“That’s the goal. But to be able to play at home in the home opener it meant a lot to me. I feel like I accomplished something,” Pedroia said. “During the whole thing, I haven’t really had any good news or anything. Go see a doctor, and he gives you bad news. At some point, you want something good. This meant a lot.”
You play to win the game, as Herm Edwards once famously uttered. But sometimes simply by playing the game, you’re a winner. We all need to be reminded of that.