DETROIT -- And so it has begun, officially.
The first game of the Bobby Valentine era is now official, and with the Red Sox’ 3-2 Opening Day loss to the Tigers, the first batch of decisions and actions to scrutinize is on the books. There is only so much that can be discerned about a manager’s style and, more significantly, his tactical approaches in the exhibition setting of spring training. On Thursday, the Bobby Valentine era started to become real.
Thursday marked Valentine’s return to a Major League Baseball dugout for the first time since 2002 for a regular-season game. And make no mistake, it was a meaningful day for the 45th Red Sox manager.
“[I] got up so long ago I can’t remember,” Valentine said prior to the game. “To tell you the truth, I had the same feeling that I think most of the guys have. I talked to a lot of them at the hotel early and saw some of them here now. It’s Opening Day. There’s only one Opening Day. It’s a very special day. Start of something new.”
Certainly, it was the start of something different, a notion reinforced prior to the game when Valentine’s predecessor, Terry Francona, waited in a suit and tie in the hallway outside the visiting manager’s office at Comerica Park for a chance to conduct the pregame interview with his successor.
And in many ways, that interaction seemed a fitting way to begin Valentine’s tenure, since for at least some time, it will be understood through what is and is not different from the decisions and actions of Francona. That being the case, Thursday started to offer substance to the conversation about the in-season, in-game distinctions and similarities of the decisions and tactics of the two.
Here, then, is a look at some of the first key decisions of the Bobby Valentine era.
Finally, it was unveiled. In the end, after consideration of numerous variations -- the most dramatic of which would have involved dropping Jacoby Ellsbury in the batting order and thus creating a domino effect of lineup variations – the lineup that started the 2012 season looked largely like the ones that were employed for most of 2011.
Ellsbury batted leadoff, followed by Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez, the same top three that the Sox employed more than 100 times last year. After that, David Ortiz hit cleanup with Kevin Youkilis batting fifth, a slight variation on the usual 2011 alignment in which Francona split up lefties Gonzalez and Ortiz by having Youkilis hit cleanup, but not unprecedented, since at the end of last year, the Sox featured a front five of Ellsbury-Pedroia-Gonzalez-Ortiz-Youkilis four times in the season’s final month.
Beyond that front five, newcomers Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross batted sixth and seventh, respectively, with the left-handed Sweeney batting in front of the right-handed Ross against Detroit ace right-hander Justin Verlander, a man whose curveball is a paralyzing pitch for right-handed hitters.
Switch-hitter Jarrod Saltalamacchia batted eighth and was followed by shortstop Mike Aviles. Last year, that was the most common lineup spot for both hitters, with Saltalamacchia hitting eighth 33 times, and Aviles in the ninth spot for 11 of his 23 starts last season.
In some respects, the only notable difference from a year ago was the proclamation of Valentine that it was circumstantial, and subject to change.
“That grouping today I think is just based on the starting pitcher that we’re facing today,” Valentine said.
There will be tinkering, but of course, as Valentine himself has noted, there is always tinkering, as evidenced by the fact that Francona used 123 lineups a year ago.
FOR STARTERS, LESTER’S USAGE WAS BY THE BOOK
In the 2011 season, Lester averaged 103 pitches and 6 1/3 innings per start. On Thursday, he threw 106 pitches and lasted seven innings. And he was strong to the finish, even on the at-bat on which Alex Avila sliced a fastball for a double into the left-field corner for the only run he allowed; after all, one pitch earlier, on a 2-2 pitch, Lester was convinced that he’d dotted the outside corner with a fastball.
TACTICALLY SPEAKING, THE INFIELD CAME IN WHEN IT NEEDED TO
With the Sox down, 1-0, in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Tigers immediately mounted another threat with a leadoff triple by Austin Jackson against reliever Vicente Padilla. On a day when runs were hard to generate, the idea of going down by a second run seemed unacceptable, and so it came as little surprise when Valentine brought the infield in for the next batter, Brennan Boesch.
Initially, the decision worked perfectly, as Boesch chopped a grounder to shortstop Mike Aviles on which the speedy Jackson was unable to advance. An intentional walk to Miguel Cabrera -- the Tigers’ best hitter -- followed, a move that set up a double play against Prince Fielder.
That said, it was interesting to note that Valentine made the decision to pass on a right-on-right matchup between Padilla and Cabrera (who had a .233/.304/.714/1.019 line with three homers in 23 plate appearances against Padilla) in favor of a matchup between left-hander Franklin Morales (whom he summoned into the game at that point) and left-handed masher Prince Fielder (1-for-2 against Morales).
Fielder delivered the insurance run with a sacrifice fly. Again, this was a relatively chalk set of in-game decisions, since the Sox had to play to avoid giving up the run.
SACRIFICING A SLUGGER (AND PINCH-HITTER) FOR A TIE
During the Red Sox’ rally in the top of the ninth inning, Valentine faced a key decision with his short bench. With the Sox trailing, 2-0, and runners on the corners following Adrian Gonzalez’s no-out single, Valentine replaced Gonzalez at first base with pinch-runner Darnell McDonald.
The decision was a significant one, since it meant that if the game advanced into extra innings, the Sox would be without arguably their best hitter. Moreover, it meant that the Sox would not have a potential pinch-hitting weapon in the right-handed McDonald (who, presumably, at some point could have been an option to replace left-handed hitter Ryan Sweeney).
It also meant that if the Sox did come back, Valentine’s thin, three-person bench would be almost completely barren (save for backup catcher Kelly Shoppach), since the removal of Gonzalez from the game would require the insertion of Nick Punto at third base, with Youkilis moving across the diamond from third to first.
Even so, with the Sox needing to play for a tie, the decision was once again dictated in fairly straightforward fashion by the game circumstance, particularly given that the lumbering Gonzalez is one of the slowest players in the majors (at least by Gonzalez’s own account).
As the potential tying run, the Sox went from one of their slowest baserunners to a much faster one. Moreover, Valentine employed McDonald aggressively, having him steal a base with two outs. Thus, the decision to go from Gonzalez to McDonald put the Sox in a position where a double might or might not score a run to one in which a single likely would have done so.
That shifting of odds was significant, and the aggressive strategy to do so -- even at the cost of a key hitter -- was anything but atypical. Indeed, last April, Francona pinch-ran McDonald for Ortiz in a similar situation (on the road, tie game, bottom of the ninth) and had McDonald steal with two outs.
There can and perhaps will be situations where pinch-running for a slugger will prove costly. But, especially given that the Sox were trailing at the time, the logic of the move was plainly apparent.
THE BOTTOM OF THE NINTH: MANAGING A NEW BULLPEN ORDER
Ultimately, the game funneled down to an area that became a glaring uncertainty in the final days of spring training.
The Red Sox are adapting on the fly to the fact that closer Andrew Bailey will miss (roughly) the first four months of the year after undergoing thumb surgery. Valentine and his staff made the decision to anoint Alfredo Aceves the closer -- despite the fact that he has no experience in the role -- over Mark Melancon.
After the Sox rallied for a tie in the top of the ninth, the Sox had a decision to make. Both Melancon and Aceves had been warming during the comeback. The team could turn to either to open the inning.
The Tigers were scheduled to open the bottom of the ninth with a pair of right-handed hitters, Ryan Raburn and Jhonny Peralta, followed by left-hander Alex Avila and switch-hitter Ramon Santiago. The decision was made to go with Melancon -- who held righties to a .228 average, .275 OBP and .581 OPS last year -- over Aceves, against whom righties hit .216/.317/.656 in 2011, compared to marks of .190/.278/.576 by lefties.
“It’s a tie game on the road so Melancon’s going to try to get us the inning out,” said Valentine. “The right-hander is coming up. I didn’t think there was any reason Mark couldn’t start that inning.”
Most managers, in fact, will try to preserve their closer to see if there is a lead to protect. So, the fact that Melancon was on the mound came as no great surprise.
At the same time, Aceves is an atypical candidate to close. He threw six innings on March 29, and Valentine has already discussed an openness to using Aceves for multiple-inning appearances, a role in which he was simply amazing in 2011. So, the idea of “burning” a closer by bringing him into a tie game is somewhat less of a confounding factor in a decision to employ Aceves than it might be for another reliever.
Even so, it makes little sense to abuse Aceves’ versatility -- particularly at the start of the year -- and to have him pile on innings while marginalizing Melancon, a pitcher whom the Sox acquired this offseason to be a key bullpen contributor, and someone whom the Sox did consider as a closing option before turning to Aceves.
So, Melancon came on for the ninth. He got Raburn to line out to the edge of the warning track in right, then gave up a couple soft singles to Peralta (who dunked a ball to the opposite field in front of Sweeney) and Avila (who dumped a ball to the opposite field in front of left-fielder Cody Ross).
“A couple of balls fell in, just missing our outfielders’ glove,” rued Valentine.
Melancon had given up hard contact on the out, followed by weaker contact on the two hits. With the left-handed Santiago coming to the plate, however, Valentine decided that he wanted to go with his relief ace in a tie game, and so, with runners on first and second and one down, Aceves was summoned into the middle of an inning.
“It felt a little quick,” Melancon said of his removal. “But that's not my job. My job is to get outs and I didn't do that. I'm not going to think any more about that. I'm just going to continue to try to get outs and get after it.”
So, why make the move there to Aceves, who allowed 11 of 29 (38 percent) inherited runners to score last year, slightly worse than the AL average of 30 percent of inherited runners who scored?
“As soon as it got to be a jeopardy situation, I just wanted to close the door with the last guy who’s going to really be the closer,” said Valentine. “I thought he had the stuff to get a groundball. He got a groundball.”
That groundball came after Aceves clipped the back of Santiago’s heel with a curveball (Valentine argued, to no avail, that Santiago had swung at the pitch) to load the bases with one out. With the infield once again drawn in, this time to cut down what could have been a go-ahead run, left-hander Austin Jackson bounced a single past a diving Nick Punto and down the left-field line for a game-winning hit.
It was the sort of outcome that will magnify the attention given to the absence of Bailey and, for that matter, former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon (who was busy shutting down the Pirates in the ninth inning for his first save as a member of the Phillies). However, Valentine noted that his bullpen usage would have been largely unaltered had Bailey been available.
“I think everybody was pitching in the spot that they should have been pitching in. I didn’t think that there was any confusion,” said Valentine. “I bet it would have been pretty close to that scenario if Bailey was out there.”
DEALING WITH DEFEAT
And so, with the Tigers stringing together their three well-placed (if not necessarily well-struck) ninth-inning hits, Valentine’s tenure got off to a start that wasn’t exactly storybook. Still, on a day when his team suffered a loss, Valentine found encouragement.
His starter had gone toe to toe with Justin Verlander, currently as dominant a pitcher as there is in the game. His lineup had mounted a gutsy ninth-inning comeback against Tigers closer Jose Valverde, a man who hadn’t blown a single save in 2011.
And so, Valentine could declare satisfaction with his team’s performance. After all, this spring, he underscored that his evaluations cannot be based on outcomes.
“Process brings forth the outcome. The last thing that matters is the score of the game or the standings of the team,” Valentine said this spring. “There’s no such thing as everyday excellence. There is such thing as everyday effort that is excellent. As long as someone is going to have an excellent effort, they’ll perform at their highest level as often as they possibly can.”
With that in mind, while the outcome was not what Valentine would have hoped for in his first regular season game with the Sox, he saw promise.
“There was a lot that I saw that I liked,” said Valentine. “I don’t know where you want to start.”