So the Red Sox are 1-0 on their way to 161 more regular season wins. Maybe not, but they have gotten off to the start they had hoped for with a 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, Tuesday at Fenway Park.
Other than the two runs surrendered by relievers Hideki Okajima and Justin Masterson, there wasn't much to nitpick when it came to the Sox' first home season-opener since 2002. Yet there were more than a few items that should be noted. So, here are five things we learned during the Sox' first win of '09:
1. The 2009 Josh Beckett looks a whole lot like the 2007 Josh Beckett
Some telling statistics regarding Beckett's first Opening Day start as a member of the Red Sox ...
- He threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 26 batters he faced, and 16 of 20 if you exclude the Rays' one-run third inning. He would finish tossing 61 of his 93 pitches for strikes.
- Beckett's velocity reached 96 mph on occasion, with his fastball averaging out at 93.7 mph (according to MLB.com).
- In his last six regular season outings, Beckett has limited opponents to one run or less five times. And in his four Opening Day starts he has now compiled a 2-1 mark with a 1.59 ERA with 26 strikeouts over 22 2/3 innings. He notched 10 strikeouts against the Rays, marking the ninth time in his career he has fanned 10 or more.
But perhaps the most important moment of afternoon for Beckett came in the Rays' sixth when Akinori Iwamura led off with a walk and proceeded to move to third on a double from Carl Crawford. The Sox starter bore down after that, getting Evan Longoria to pop out to catcher Jason Varitek, fanning Carlos Pena, and then getting a ground out to third out of Pat Burrell. It set off a round of fist-pumping and exultation from Beckett, who had officially cemented himself at the top of the Sox rotation.
"You're taking the way he through the ball in spring training and then applying a game plan so things are different," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "When you're in a bind as he was a couple times, you have a place to go or an idea of what you want to do. He got in a bind and just went through the middle of their order. He got Longoria to pop-up, struck out Pena, that was pretty impressive."
2. Optimism isn't hard to find when looking at the Red Sox lineup
Only one member of the Sox' lineup, leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury, failed to get at least one hit (ending the center fielder's 18-game hit streak). Going deep were Dustin Pedroia (first inning) and Jason Varitek (sixth inning), both off Tampa Bay starter James Shields. Also knocking in runs were J.D. Drew, Jason Bay, and Mike Lowell. Three of the runs came in the third inning when Drew drove in Pedroia via a ground out, Bay singled in Kevin Youkilis, and Lowell doubled off the wall to plate Bay.
"That’s something that we always preach around here, is the depth of our lineup," said Youkilis. "It’s come into question, our offense. I don’t know where it came from. I tell you what, we’ve got a pretty good team: a good offensive team and good pitching. It’s going to take us a long way."
Of note was how Tampa Bay defensed a few of the Red Sox hitters, and how the home team got around the alignment. Rays' manager Joe Maddon, who created "the 3-4 defense," a shift featuring three infielders and four outfielders against Sox' DH David Ortiz in 2006, positioned shortstop Jason Bartlett on the right side of second base when Drew was at the plate, and then moved first baseman Carlos Pena to where the second baseman would usually play during Bay's at-bats.
The move involving Pena and Bay back-fired on Tampa Bay in the third when Bay took a Shields fastball into right field, lining a ball through the hole where the Tampa Bay first baseman would usually be residing.
"We play a lot of those, we just do. And it's good," said Maddon of the high-pressure games in the A.L. East. "It's good for their baseball soul. As the season is in progress and you play games like this and you learn how to win them or believe that you can win them is very important also ... it matters. So it was another typical game with these guys in this ballpark."
3. The Red Sox are healthy, and getting healthier
After executing some sharp stopping and starting movements in the outfield prior to the opener, Mark Kotsay is now scheduled to take live batting practice out on the field for the first time this season. Kotsay, who is coming back from back surgery, will join the Red Sox on the West Coast after their current three-game homestand and hopes to be back playing with the major league team in early May.
And then there is David Ortiz, who reiterated after his team's win how nice it was to finally play a regular season game without having to worry about any semblance of injuries. Ortiz, who singled in his first at-bat, was the topic of conversation with Tampa Bay's Pat Burrell, who had to rebound from the same wrist injury the Sox slugger was forced to deal with throughout 2008.
"That's the whole thing," said Burrell of having an offseason of recovery, "you don't have to think about it, and once you get to that point where you don't have to think about it you're in a good place. I would imagine after the offseason, after the layoff, that was the case. It was for me."
4. Jason Varitek's hard work paid off ... for at least a day
Hitting from the left-side, Varitek put on four quality at-bats, including his sixth-inning home run which wrapped around the right-field foul pole. It was a promising first sign for a player who is trying to make a recovery that is rare in baseball history.
The catcher's work in regards to keeping his front foot more settled has been a topic of conversation throughout spring training, with hitting coach Dave Magadan exuding optimism regarding the transformation heading into the season.
"He's kept that adjustment with the front foot the whole spring training," Magadan said. "Basically what he was doing in the past was either tapping back and stopping and then re-striding, and sometimes striding twice and even striding three times. We've just tried to make him more consistent with his stride and getting ready to hit. He was really consistent with it in the spring. He looked good from the get-go. He took some good swings early on and didn't have anything to show for it, but I've been very happy with the way he's been swinging the bat."
Varitek was making his 10th Opening Day start behind the plate for the Red Sox, a franchise record. It was his second Opening Day home run, with only Carl Yastrzemski (6), Dwight Evans (5), Jim Rice (3), and Ted Williams (3) totaling more Opening Day homers. Varitek is now hitting .316 on Opening Day while playing for the Red Sox.
5. This wasn't any ordinary day
Whenever you have jets fly over over in formation and players enter the field through the stands (and in sneakers, nonetheless), you know it's not just another day at the park. But the moment that truly separated the event was Senator Ted Kennedy throwing out the first pitch. After letting the first try to impromptu catcher Jim Rice slip out of his hand, Kennedy asked for, and received, another try, which he executed successfully.
"That was an honor. That was a highlight," said Francona, who greeted Kennedy after the Senator was brought to the field via a golf cart. "I've been pretty fortunate here to get to do some pretty neat things and that was one of them."