NEW YORK –A case can be made that no member of the Red Sox roster will have more to say about whether the team is an AL East contender or also-ran than Jon Lester. The gap between what he was from 2008-11 — one of the top starters in the majors — and his performance in 2012 — when he was a durable starter who performed at a below league-average level, more along the lines of a No. 4 or No. 5 starter, is colossal.
And so it was that the first note of the Red Sox’ 2013 season was a considerably impressive one. Lester proved mostly sharp against a depleted Yankees lineup, leaning mostly on a 92-94 mph fastball and a nasty cutter that stayed on the hands of hitters while working five innings in which he permitted two runs on five hits and two walks. Lester struck out seven, more than he punched out in 25 of his 33 starts a year ago.
His pitch count (96, 63 strikes) represented something of an issue, as he proved unable to work deep into the game. Still, Lester avoided the sort of potholes that sometimes ruined otherwise-promising outings last year. For the Sox, who hadn’t won on Opening Day since 2010, the left-hander’s performance — and the team’s 8-2 win — represented a positive first step for a team sorely in need of just that.
Some other takeaways from Opening Day:
WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX
– In their decision to stash Jackie Bradley Jr. in the eighth spot in the lineup for his major league debut, there was a message from the Red Sox. As promising as his spring was, and as good a hitter as the Sox think that the 22-year-old can become, the team’s decision to insert him in left field for Opening Day was driven chiefly because of the fact that he combines an advanced, disciplined plate approach with tremendous outfield defense and strong base running.
Bradley displayed both against the Yankees. In his first career plate appearance, with runners on first and second and one out in the top of the second inning, he quickly fell behind CC Sabathia, 0-2, but then took a pair of sliders (one just off the plate), fouled off a fastball, then took a slider and fastball for a walk. Then, when Jose Iglesias bounced a chopper to shortstop, Bradley’s good break from first permitted him to slide safely into second on a fielder’s choice attempt — a play that proved huge given that the Sox scored three two-out runs in the inning.
Then, with two outs and a runner on second in the bottom of the third inning, Bradley got a great jump on a Robinson Cano fly ball to deep left field, ran a clean route to the ball and turned around in time to make the catch while backpedaling just shy of the warning track — a play that ended the inning and saved at least one run.
Bradley would later strike out and walk against Sabathia, seeing 15 pitches in three plate appearances despite not putting a ball in play. When he finally did make contact, it was with runners on the corners and one out in the top of the seventh. Against left-handed reliever Boone Logan, he worked the count to 3-1 then hit a hard grounder back up the middle that Logan couldn’t field cleanly; the ball glanced off his glove for an RBI groundout. Finally, in his fifth plate appearance of the game, Bradley accepted a walk from Joba Chamberlain, thus becoming the first big leaguer to walk three times in his major league debut since Danny Ardoin of the Twins did it in 2000.
So, Bradley went 0-for-2 with three walks, an RBI and 26 pitches seen. The ability to impact multiple dimensions of the game without collecting a hit underscored what the Sox hoped Bradley might be able to do if he remained on the roster.
– The Red Sox bullpen was dominant. Even though Lester was knocked out after just five innings, the team had waves of arms to send at the Yankees, with Koji Uehara (1IP), Andrew Bailey (2/3 IP), Andrew Bailey (1/3 IP), Junichi Tazawa (1 IP) and Joel Hanrahan delivering four shutout innings in which they permitted just one hit and two walks while striking out three. Miller hit 98 mph with a pair of punchouts, Bailey struck out Kevin Youkilis with a 95 mph heater up in the zone and Hanrahan showed 97 mph with life to close out the contest.
– Jarrod Saltalamacchia had a strong day at the plate, notable because he starter against the left-handed Sabathia. He went 1-for-2 with a double and a pair of walks (including 1-for-2 with one of those walks against Sabathia). That performance continued a spring in which the catcher performed well against southpaws (.333 average, .375 OBP), something that he rarely had the opportunity to do in 2012.
– Jose Iglesias didn’t exactly destroy the baseball, but he chopped an infield single with the bases loaded, pushed a bunt to the right side for a single and later had a swinging bunt to third for another hit. (He’d worked quite a bit on bunting during spring training.) The three-hit game was the second of the young shortstop’s career, with the previous one coming against the Rays last Sept. 20 representing his only prior contest with multiple base hits in 35 big league appearances.
– Overall, the lineup did an excellent job of making Yankees pitchers — particularly Sabathia — work. The Sox knocked the big left-hander out after just five innings in which he required 102 pitches.
WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX
– Mike Napoli had a tough Red Sox debut, going 0-for-5 with a pair of strikeouts.
– Will Middlebrooks went 0-for-4 with a walk, but deserves some bonus points for being on the field despite a 102-degree fever while fighting the flu.
– The Sox missed out on several chances to blow the game open early, leaving 13 runners on base. Most heinously, they failed to score a run in the sixth inning after Jacoby Ellsbury led off the frame with a triple. Still, they finally put the game out of reach by plating three runs in the ninth against reliever Joba Chamberlain.
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