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March 19, 2008

Hoisting the Flag Will Have to Wait

Hitting the Road

by John Perrotto

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The Boston Red Sox will have quite a long day Wednesday. First, they will play Toronto in an exhibition game in the afternoon at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Florida. After that, they will take a 17-hour flight to Tokyo (with a stopover in Chicago) as they travel to Japan to open the regular season March 25-26 with a two-game series against Oakland. Beforehand, they'll play two exhibition games against Japanese teams, as they face the Hanshin Tigers on Friday and then the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants on Sunday at the Tokyo Dome before playing the Athletics

Even by the standards of spring training in which the days start early and end late, that's an endless day. The worst part for the Red Sox is that they can't even catch a nap on the way to Tokyo. Doctors have advised them to stay awake for the entire flight, or risk suffering consequences throughout their trip to the Far East. "We've been told by our doctors that we need to have our internal clocks adjusted to Japanese time as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that is by staying awake," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "It's going to be an awfully long day, but that's OK. With all the time we spend staying awake on the plane, I should be able to make a lot of money off (Red Sox second baseman Dustin) Pedroia playing cribbage."

All kidding aside, Francona and the Red Sox aren't overly thrilled about beginning a defense of their World Series title on the other side of the world. Few people are more creatures of habit than those in baseball, and playing games on another continent certainly changes the routine. "It's not the ideal situation, but we've been asked to do this, and we realize that it's good for the game of baseball," Francona said. "We'll go there and do our very best to represent our organization and Major League Baseball. We will try to make the best of it and have fun. We've spent a lot of time planning for this trip and trying to make sure that it goes as smoothly as possible. Hopefully, everything will go fine and we'll get a couple of wins to start the season off on a good note."

The trip to Japan has caused an interrupted spring training for the Red Sox, and quite a rough travel schedule before they finally arrive back in Boston on the evening of April 6. Following the trip to Japan, the Red Sox will go to Los Angeles and play three exhibition games against the Dodgers from March 28-30. Among those will be a game in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers moving west from Brooklyn. The Red Sox will then return to regular-season play with two games against the Athletics in Oakland on April 1-2 before flying across the continent for a three-game series in Toronto against the Blue Jays from April 4-6. The Red Sox will finally play a game in Boston on April 8 with the home opener against Detroit. Only then will they get to raise their championship flag.

"It will be a distraction only if we allow it to become one," Francona said of the Red Sox' hectic schedule. "If we had a young team I'd be concerned, but we have a veteran team. We have a lot of guys who know how to prepare for a season and know how to take care of themselves. I'm really not worried. We'll get through it and we'll be fine."

That is also Francona's feeling about the Florida portion of spring training. The Red Sox had a few bumps along the way but have gotten through it. The biggest scare came when right-hander Josh Beckett went down with lower back stiffness. Last year, Beckett emerged as the ace of the starting rotation last season when he had 6.2 SNLVAR (and was then equally dominant in the postseason). Beckett will miss the trip to Japan, as doctors don't want him sitting on an airplane for such a lengthy stretch, but he should be ready by no later than the home opener.

The Red Sox had already had to cope with some bad news involving their rotation when they first arrived at spring training, as they found out that right-hander Curt Schilling would be out until at the least the All-Star break with a shoulder problem. That was not totally unexpected, though, as Schilling fought through shoulder pain last season, and made the rare in-season transition from power pitcher to finesse guy while posting 4.3 SNLVAR.

The Red Sox are one of the few teams to amass enough pitching depth to overcome these kind of losses. They also have right-handers Daisuke Matsuzaka (5.1 SNLVAR) and Tim Wakefield (3.9) and left-hander Jon Lester (1.1) in the rotation. In reserve they have rookie right-hander Clay Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in his second career start last September 1, and right-hander Bartolo Colon, who seems reborn this spring after being hampered by shoulder problems the Angels the last two seasons.

The bullpen should again be fine with closer Jonathan Papelbon (5.143 WXRL last season) and left-handed set-up man Hideki Okajima (4.429), two big reasons why the Red Sox allowed an American League-best 4.06 runs a game. "(General Manager) Theo Epstein and the front office have worked very hard to create pitching depth in this organization, and it's paying off right now," Francona said. "People said over the winter that we had too much pitching. But everyone who knows baseball knows you really never have enough pitching. It's not just a cliché. It's the truth."

A potential lineup controversy was defused when incumbent Coco Crisp suffered a strained groin muscle that allowed rookie Jacoby Ellsbury to take over as the starting center fielder. The transition began during last year's American League Championship Series victory over Cleveland, and Crisp was unhappy to learn that he was going to have to compete for the job this spring.

"Jacoby was in a tough situation where he was being asked to compete with a guy who played a heckuva center field for us last year," Francona said. "The kid handled it with such class, though. He's such a great kid and competitor. There's a reason we're so excited about his future."

Ellsbury will be part of a lineup that averaged 5.35 runs a game last season (third in the AL), and which also includes designated hitter David Ortiz (.338), catcher Jason Varitek (.265), first baseman Kevin Youkilis (.283), Pedroia (.276), third baseman Mike Lowell (.288), shortstop Julio Lugo (.225), left fielder Manny Ramirez (.291), and right fielder J.D. Drew (.270).

The Red Sox have almost entirely the same roster that swept Colorado in last year's World Series. That could be looked upon as a negative in some circles, with the school of thought being that it could be a contented roster after last year's title. However, Francona had no qualms with the Red Sox front office basically standing pat in the winter. "Absolutely none," Francona said. "It was a good team and a good bunch of guys. I don't worry about us becoming complacent at all. The thing about baseball is that you don't remember the wins for very long, but the losses stay with you for a long time."

Francona then thought back to last October when the Red Sox beat the Indians in seven games in the ALCS. "We had just won Game Seven, and we're out there on the infield at Fenway Park celebrating and Papelbon is doing his stupid little dance, and all of a sudden I started looking for (pitching coach) John Farrell so we could talk about how our pitching would set up for the World Series," Francona said. "That's the thing about this game, you're always looking ahead. The World Series was last October. That was a long time ago. We're in a new season now and we're not living in the past."

If the Red Sox need a rallying point in their effort to repeat and win their third World Series crown in five seasons following the storied drought of 86 years, it could be backup first baseman Sean Casey. The Red Sox signed him as a free agent last winter, and he is accepting a bench role after spending the first 11 seasons of his career as a starting first baseman with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. "The individual stuff doesn't matter to me anymore," said Casey, who delivered a weak .256 EqA for the Tigers last season. "The one thing I learned when I got traded to Detroit two years ago is that it's all about winning a World Series. That's why you play this game. For me, that would top everything I've been able to accomplish in this game."

Francona thinks that attitude will rub off on the rest of the Red Sox. "You can just see the hunger in Sean's eyes, how he wants to have a ring like everyone on this club. That's why I think he is such an important addition. Not only does he give us a solid veteran bat off the bench but he has that hunger to win a championship. There isn't a better person in baseball than Sean Casey. Everyone loves him. You put him in a clubhouse that's already a really good one with a bunch of professionals and it becomes a great clubhouse with a desire to win another championship."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox,  Red Sox,  The Who,  Terry Francona

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