After an opening series in Baltimore and the first home stand of 2014, the Red Sox stand at 4-5. Not the start hoped for, but I think the positives outweigh the negatives so far as the Sox invade New York for a four game set beginning tomorrow night with the Yankees. Here are a few thoughts on some of those negatives and positives of very, very early 2014.
* The three game sweep by the Brewers at Fenway. Certainly the Red Sox should not go 0-3 at home versus the Brew Crew. But I have heard a number of fans (and granted there is a large"the sky is falling" contingent in Red Sox Nation) use the word embarrassment for the weekend. The Red Sox were tied into the ninth for the home opener and into the 11th on Saturday. That series was NOT an "embarrassment". Three losses by 10-2 scores would have been an embarrassment. Disappointment, but nothing more.
*Lack of clutch hitting. Two games in particular stand out, the opener in Baltimore ( hopefully Jon Lester will not be this year's John Lackey getting no run support all year) and Tuesday night's hitting into 5 double plays. But the hitting with RISP has been lacking for the whole nine games, excepting Mike Napoli's 3 run blast in the extra inning loss to Milwaukee, Papi's game winning home run today versus Texas, and some run scoring hits by Jackie Bradley, Jr. I chalk this up to a small sample size, and fully expect this team to pile up runs. Warmer weather will help also.
* Will Middlebrooks injury. The timing of this was so unfortunate as Middlebrooks seemed to be in great shape and was showing some early power hitting, with the only Red Sox home run in the home opener. Hopefully his calf injury will be relatively minor, and Will can get back in the lineup.
* Clay Buchholz' first start. The only poor start the first time through the rotation. This makes Thursday's start against the Yankees all the more interesting. Although Buch is slotted in the five hole in the rotation to begin 2014, the Sox need him to produce as he is capable of.
* Felix Doubront's second start. Unfortunately, Doubront pitched like he has so often in his past versus Texas. A strong first two or three innings, then the wheels came off. No pitcher in the game can shut out the opponent every start, so let us hope this was a blip on the way to the breakthrough so many people are predicting of Felix in 2014 (me included).
* Two series wins. Even though the Sox are under .500 due to the Milwaukee weekend, they have won the other two series taking 2 of 3 from two AL contenders, Baltimore and Texas. As Boston showed in 2013, the key to winning the season is to keep piling up series wins 2 of 3, 3 of of 4, etc.
* Starting pitching has been strong. With the two exceptions listed above, the Sox are one start shy of two times through the rotation and have had 7 of 9 good to great starts. All of Lester, Lackey, and Jake Peavy have shone twice each. To me the biggest reason the Red Sox are well positioned to repeat is this starting staff (the whole staff, actually).
* Koji and Tazawa are off to repeats of '13. Again, it is very early but both of the bullpen stalwarts ( Koji, especially) have not missed a beat. If this duo can continue, this team becomes all the much harder to take down as AL East Champs (and beyond).
* Xander Bogaerts is coming as advertised. The out Xander made in his last AB today dropped him down under a .300 BA, but he has put together one great plate appearance after another. Not only bunches of hits and walks, but several of his outs have been hit on the screws. Oddly enough through nine games, Bogaerts has no home runs or any RBI. The RBI is sort of team related, when the lineup produces as expected more RBI opportunities will arise. As far as home runs the Aruban has hit 2 April home runs in the minors for the last two seasons and 33 after April. There will be plenty of home runs from our rookie shortstop.
* The blessing of the injury to Shane Victorino. Hopefully Victorino will be back in the lineup before April is out, and Shane's hamstring injury lead to the reprieve for........
* Jackie Bradley, Jr. After losing his roster spot to Grady Sizemore, and being officially optioned to Pawtucket, Bradley, Jr. got the chance to stay for now in Boston when Victorino was hurt in the last exhibition game. And after a slow game or two ( like taking a called third strike to end the opener), Bradley, Jr. has shown off his spectacular glove ( in right field, for now) and has been reaching base two or three times per games with run producing singles and a wall ball double, and today with three key walks. At this point in time the only reason Jackie should not start every game in right field until Victorino is ready, is when Jackie is needed to play center to give Sizemore one of his needed off games. If he continues to play anything like the recent days it will be very difficult if not impossible to send him to AAA. Back on March 1st on this site, I wrote as spring training began, I felt the best outcome for the Sox outfield would be JBJr in center and a healthy Grady Sizemore taking left field from the Gomes/Nava platoon( with of course the unstated intent to have Shane V in right). Today for the first time that I had seen several writers including the esteemed Alex Speier of WEEI and Peter Abraham of the Globe both suggest that outfield alignment going forward. It would be by far, the best defensive outfield in the game, and pretty damned fair at the plate as well. When approached, John Farrell was noncommittal but did not reject the premise.
Two last notes before prepping for the Yankee series. First it is known some of the Maineiacs are not fans of the new replay rules ( me definitely included). Can you imagine what little would be left of Fenway Park if the umpires had looked at a replay and reversed the call of David Ortiz' game winning 8th inning home run today? What bedlam it would have been, and mark my words that will happen before this year is over. God help us all.
Before the year began, Buster Olney of ESPN ranked the strength of schedule for each team for April and had the Sox around the middle of the AL pack ( 7th I think). To me I think the Red Sox April slate is tougher than it seems. For one thing of the 28 games ( counting March 31), 19 are versus AL East rivals. Fourteen of the nineteen are against the O's and Yankees, seven with each. Sixteen of the remaining nineteen now that the first nine are off the board. ( Plus the Sox play one more game with the Rays on May 1). The only three non AL East April games are with the lowly White Sox, but they are in Chicago on the upcoming road trip after the four in the Big Apple. Last year the Sox had an 18-8 April and it was very important to their road to the pennant. Let us see how the next three weeks go for this version of the Red Sox.