FORT MYERS, Fla. -- One day short of putting a bow on the 2011 Red Sox spring training, Dustin Pedroia attempted to punctuate the endeavor with a dash of panache.
"Break up the Red Sox!" the second baseman exclaimed after the team snapped its 10-game losing streak via a rain-shortened, 3-2 win over the Blue Jays in Dunedin.
The notion of the result having any meaning on the upcoming '11 regular season was ludicrous (as Pedroia's overly-dramatic pre-three-hour-bus-ride proclamation might suggest). But it was somewhat of a fitting bridge into the real games.
For this Red Sox team, one month of exhibition games wasn't going to budge expectations (as the recent 10 straight losses reminded us). It was going to take a pretty significant series of roadblocks to leave the Sox anything but favorites for '11.
But while wins and losses meant nothing, there were pieces that made up the 45-day puzzle that should be of some significance. With a tip of the cap to 'Capt. 10 Things', WEEI.com football writer Chris Price, here are five things we learned this spring training:
Beckett's numbers this spring have been awful. He's suffered four losses in as many decisions while totaling an ERA of 6.64. Yet before believing the starter is headed toward a repeat of 2010, understand a few things:
1. He is healthy, and, as he points out, while the righty's career has had its fair share of ups and downs, Beckett does have a solid history when coming out of spring training in good physical condition.
"I've always believed everything else takes care of itself. Physical limitations are the things that can hold me back," he said. "As long as health is not an issue, I've had good numbers."
2. Last year took a toll on the rhythm which had been in perfect alignment the season before. This quote from Beckett was telling:
"I had to retrain myself this offseason after I got into some bad habits. It's not an overnight deal. You pick up some bad habits when you throw for six months a different way then you have thrown for the last 20 years. I have had to make some small adjustments this spring. it's still not 100 percent comfortable. That's what we're looking for. Obviously results matter to some people in spring training, but I think everybody can tell by my mood I'm not too worried about results. I'm worried about what this is going to lead to when I get to the regular season and I'm going every fifth day knowing we have to keep some momentum going."
3. It's not a lie when he talks about being optimistic. While the true answers won't come until he can start getting outs in the regular season, the fact that his fastball is at a different level than he left it last season, and a new change-up has offered encouragement is viewed by Beckett as reason enough to embrace his sixth season with the Sox.
What may be worth paying the most attention to is the pitch which was his best weapon during his best stretch of pitching ('09), a two-seam fastball.
The offering has been hit or miss throughout the spring, as was evidenced in his most recent start. When the pitch is going good, Beckett can aim it right at a left-handed hitters' front hip and watch it sneak into the strike zone's inside corner. But against the Blue Jays' Adam Loewen, the pitch missed its mark, resulting in a mammoth home run.
Beckett pointed out that it was the right pitch, but the wrong time to throw it (having followed a few change-ups). Regardless, the fastball will offer one of a few checkpoints when it comes to seeing if the starter is headed down the right road.
The talk started at the end of last season, when Papelbon used the final days to extol the virtues of his new pitch.
"The ['10] season is more satisfying to me [than frustrating], because of one simple thing: I'm throwing this breaking ball, the slider, that is better than I've ever thrown," he told WEEI.com during the Sox' late-September series in Chicago. "In my mind, now I'm going into a healthy, to-be-free agent year with three pitches and healthy. I've reached exactly where I want to be with health, where I want to be as a pitcher, and I can't complain."
The optimism carried over to Fort Myers.
On one of the early days of camp, the closer was asked while strolling from field to field how the slider was coming.
"You watch," he said, "how many times I throw it."
The pitch's momentum didn't stop there, and neither did the buzz surrounding the pitch.
“We throw every day so I see a lot of it,” said Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard. “It seemed at times he would get on the side of it and it would have that Frisbee action and it wasn’t an effective pitch for him. The one he’s throwing this year, I don’t know if he’s gripping it different, but it’s got depth, it’s late. It looks like a plus pitch the way he’s throwing it right now. It looks like something has changed a little bit. It’s a later and sharper pitch than it was last year.”
Papelbon insists he is going to throw the pitch just as much as his splitter, a notion that was supported by his spring appearances. But the reality in regards to the closer's situation is that he needs to maintain his fastball to execute the preferred game-plan.
And while the velocity has been good enough (consistently around 94 mph), location and late life will determine if the righty can indeed head toward November in position to be at the head of the closers' free agent class.
THE LINEUP IS SET UP FOR SUCCESS
Regardless of what transpired in Florida, Terry Francona was going to have a supremely deep talent pool to draw from when formulating a lineup. From 2-6, the group has a combined 18 All-Star Game appearances.
But, judging by the bits of evidence uncovered throughout the spring, the Sox' manager may be working with an even more stacked deck than he could have hoped for.
The first round of good news for Francona came in the form of Jacoby Ellsbury's presence. He not only appeared healthy, moving around like he did in '09, but hit the ground running when it came to swinging the bat. Fastballs weren't getting deep in the strike zone against the lefty hitter, a sure sign that Ellsbury was on top of his game.
What that has done is allowed Francona to scrap any plans of easing Ellsbury back into the leadoff spot, solidifying a spot which had the potential for stop-gap measures if the rust from playing just 18 games in '10 still lingered.
"We're definitely encouraged by the fact he looks very healthy," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "He's shown a quick bat all spring. He's turned around some plus fastballs, which he's actually done pretty consistently all spring. His power in the big leagues had tended to come on off-speed, breaking balls and change-ups. This spring I think all three of his home runs have been on pretty good fastballs. When he's doing that it means his timing is really locked in and his bat is quick. It's been a really promising spring for Jacoby."
What having Ellsbury in the lineup's top spot does is allow Marco Scutaro to cement himself as potentially one of the majors' more valuable No. 9 hitters, with the only shuffling to be done centering around swapping out Pedroia and Carl Crawford, and Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez.
But perhaps the real bonus for Francona was at least somewhat surfaced thanks to Jarrod Saltalamacchia's spring performance. The switch-hitting catcher heads into the final day of Grapefruit League action leading the Red Sox in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. Spring training statistics mean little, but in this case the success offers a welcome dose of confidence for a player whose young career has been peppered with set-backs.
And if Saltalamacchia can hit -- especially with some pop -- the ability to hit from both sides of the plate could provide a much-needed solution to breaking up what could be a lefty-heavy mid-to-late portion of the lineup.
It also doesn't hurt that the Sox' have two left-handed hitters (J.D. Drew, David Ortiz) motivated to find their way against lefty pitching, and a few back-up plans (Mike Cameron, Darnell McDonald, Jed Lowrie) whose spring production offered another wave of reassurance for the Sox' decision-makers.
Matsuzaka has to earn back the trust. The trust of his team, and the fans that follow it.
It has been two seasons since the starter finished fourth in the American League Cy Young voting, and during that time Matsuzaka has offered a maddening string of stops and starts. It is for that reason that all of the pleasantries being thrown the 30-year-old's way this spring have to be followed by a caveat.
What the last few starts have done for Matsuzaka is allow him to enter '11 with somewhat of a clean slate. Now comes his chance to reclaim the unflinching notion that his presence in the rotation is of value.
In the last three spring training outings, Matsuzaka has given up just three earned runs in 16 2/3 innings, striking out 13. It's a run that started with an alteration to the pitcher's routine in between starts, choosing to go back to his ways in Japan where he threw his long-toss and bullpen on different days.
Numbers aside (because most spring training numbers should be put aside), the vision of Matsuzaka throwing his fastball with the kind of conviction he had in '08 was one of the most positive elements of the camp.
And if it continues, it might be an at-bat against Albert Pujols that will be viewed as the jumping-off point for his rediscovered bravado.
"To have Pujols waiting for a fastball and still be able to throw a fastball and either get a strike or a foul ball," he said through translator Kenta Yamada. "I felt lucky to be able to throw to such a strong hitter to check my condition and what level I am at.
"Just like last outing I was able to throw strikes using the breaking ball, and also I had great life on my fastball. It was not necessary to throw to the corners because my fastball was strong enough to throw down the middle."
Matsuzaka is daring hitters to take a whack at his fastball. When is the last time that happened?
"He obviously came into camp in really good shape. I think it was more surprising those two subpar outings that he had. He said he was working on stuff. I think he slept funny one day. We're really pleased the way he's prepared for the season this spring," Epstein noted.
"His last three outings have been solid, and more importantly he's throwing with good velocity with good command of his fastball. He's been establishing the fastball and pitching off of that. He's been able to challenge some good hitters in hitters' counts with the fastball and getting good results. Right now he's throwing well. We're excited for what he's going to do this year."
THIS MIGHT BE THE YEAR THE WHOLE DEFENSE THING WORKS OUT
It has been well-documented how good the Red Sox' outfield defense should be in '11. And the right side of the infield possesses two Gold Glove winners in Gonzalez and Pedroia.
The biggest difference, however, might be found in a place few would be looking for a significant upgrade -- the left side of the infield with the transplanted Youkilis at third and a healthy Scutaro manning shortstop.
Many pointed to Scutaro's injuries as the cause for his issues in the field, but he recently told WEEI.com a bigger problem came with having to adjust to his surroundings. The 35-year-old explained that he had a difficult time getting used to the Fenway Park infield, leaving him searching for the kind of confidence he had possessed when entering into the Gold Glove conversation the season before.
"I'm pretty sure you go through a slump hitting, and you go through a slump defensively. I think last year was one of those years," Scutaro said.
"It took a while to get used to that infield. I don't want to make that as an excuse, but it was a lot different, especially when you're used to playing in a place like Toronto. There you put your glove down and you know you won't get a bad hop. Your confidence level goes up, instead of playing on a field where you get bad hops and when that happens you start losing some of that confidence. You start guessing if you're going to get a bad hop here or there."
Judging by his play in spring training, the combination of health and Fenway familiarity has allowed Scutaro to reclaim the defensive feel that led his former coach in Toronto, Brian Butterfield, to say, "I thought he was the ['09] Gold Glove winner." In 45 chances this spring, he doesn't have an error and has helped turn four double plays.
Then there is Youkilis, who moved back to what he considers his natural position, third, after the acquisition of Gonzalez. Red Sox infield coach Tim Bogar recently relayed how impressed he was regarding the 32-year-old's progress at third, a position he hasn't called home on a full-time basis since '06.
“I don’t see why not,” said Red Sox third base/infield coach Tim Bogar when asked if Youkilis could become the first player since Darin Erstad to win a Gold Glove at two different positions. “He did it on the other side of the field. In my mind, the one thing is throwing for the whole season, and he’s been fine with it this spring. That just comes with using his lower half, and he’s done that this spring.
“His footwork has improved tremendously,” Bogar added. “The more he is over there the more his mind opens up to what he needs to do. Seeing the ball off the bat with angles. The more he sees the more it comes back to him. His reactions are getting a lot better.”
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