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BLOGGING FROM THE FORT

Spring things: A tale of three losses

FT. MYERS, Fla. -- It's only spring and the games don't mean a thing, but your world champion Boston Red Sox need to start playing some inspired baseball one of these days or run the risk of heading to New York for Sunday Night Live as the real not-ready-for-prime-time players. Here's a recap of their weekend woes:

Friday: Sox get sloppy in loss to Blue Jays

  • The Sox jumped all over Roy Halladay early as a Kevin Youkilis base hit drove in David Ortiz and Ramon Vazquez and a Jeff Bailey home run put them up 3-0 in the second. But that was all the scoring for the Sox on the day as a lackluster effort at the plate produced goose eggs for the next seven innings.

  • The local 40 also left their crisp defense in Ft. Myers, as they were shaky in the field from the get-go against the Jays. Making a rare appearance at first base, Ortiz couldn't handle a pickoff throw and made the first error of the afternoon. Second baseman Dave Berg made a throwing error for blunder No. 2, and Youkilis couldn't handle a grounder to third to complete the trifecta of errors.

    None proved costly, but Anastacio Martinez was hit hard all the same, yanked after 2 1/3 after giving up three runs on five hits, including a two-run homer by Gabe "Ruth" Gross (five homers on the spring). Matt Mantei got the third-inning save by coming in with his usual gas to retire the next two batters.

  • Old friend Shea "you heard of Jeff Bagwell?" Hillenbrand was in the lineup at third for his new team. He smashed a double in two trips. It will be fun to see Shea back at Fenway on a regular basis.

  • Since the Sox produced little offense, the remaining highlight in Dunedin was seeing highly touted prospect Ian Bladergroen, 22, make his debut at first base. With Roberto Petagine down and out with surgery, "the Blade," acquired from the Mets' farm system in the Doug Mientkiewicz deal, should get more action at first. He responded with flawless defense at the bag and banged a base hit in two trips to the plate.

    The Blade, who has the potential to be a major-league caliber power hitter, has played two seasons of organized ball prior to 2005, both at the Single-A level. In 2004, Bladergroen hit six homers and had a .285 average for Brooklyn; he sported a .342 average with 13 dingers for Capital City last year.

  • Jeremi Gonzalez should be one of the pitchers cut today. He hit a batter in the sixth and gave up a long home run to light-hitting John McDonald in the seventh. To add insult to injury, the very next batter, John-Ford Griffin, took Going-going-Gonzo deep again.

    After the next batter nearly hit the next pitch out, one Sox fan yelled "thanks for not hitting it out," while others hurled expletives at the beleaguered pitcher. Gonzalez took matters into his own hands by plunking the ever-dangerous (wink) catcher Guillermo Quiroz to back the Jays off the plate. Then another base hit by Jason Alfaro had the Sox faithful screaming "way to go Gonzalez" as the disastrous seventh was extended.

    In three spring training outings with the Sox, Gonzalez has a 7.50 ERA.

  • Little second baseman Dustin Pedroia made his debut in the eighth and turned a nifty double play in the field. He's listed as 5-foot-8, but if he's five feet tall, he's a giant.

  • Knology Park, where the Jays play in Dunedin, has a nice feel to it. Most of the seats are out in the sun, the aisles are narrow. It has no frills, no high tech-Knology, but it feels like spring training compared to City of Palms, which with all the corporate influence and heavy-handed ushers, feels like Fenway South.

  • Note to TorontoBlueJays.com. Exit 15 off 275 has apparently been re-named Exit 28 for quite some time. You can get to Dunedin from lovely Tampa, going 20 miles and 45 minutes out of your way of course. Thanks for keeping the site current.

    Saturday: Bullpen blows it against Rays

  • Davis Wells, battling the flu, made a mediocre debut in Ft. Myers. He looked sharp in the field, snagging a hard-hit ball in the first, but got hit fairly hard in two innings of work (his line: two innings, two runs -- one earned, four hits, no walks, no strikeouts). Thankfully, the probable opening night starter was just getting stretched out.

  • Right after Bill Mueller made a nice grab for his first fielding play of the spring, he got tied up on a routine grounder, which put the Rays up 2-0. He bounced back at the plate, however, by getting his first base hit of the spring. If Mueller is not ready to go, or needs a regular breather, Youkilis has been solid at the plate and at third base all spring and is more than capable of handling the hot-corner duties every day.

  • Trot Nixon hit another long ball on Saturday that briefly put the Sox up 2-1 after two. Trot looks like he's on a mission and is playing every game like it's the playoffs. He made a tremendous effort in diving for a ball down the right field line in the fourth, but could not make the play. Trot did, however, make the catch of the day in right-center in the sixth, running a long way before diving to snag the ball before landing on his stomach. The crowd went wild.

    When Nixon came in to the dugout, the players were giving him a finger-touch high five. This seems to be the new bench salute this season. No more fist fives. And no more Orlando Cabrera-style crazy handshakes. Just a boring high-finger-five. Too bad.

  • David Ortiz is ready for opening night. Despite nagging shoulder soreness that started on a needless wave home by Dale Sveum last season, he continues to pound the ball. His three-run bomb on Saturday scored Manny Ramirez and Mueller and had the Sox up 4-2 after three innings. Unfortunately, this was another lead that would not last.

  • Lefty hopeful Abe Alvarez had four strikeouts in two innings of work seems to get better with every appearance. He could potentially help the Sox in the second half of the season. Abe has a Sparky Anderson-like habit of carefully skipping over the foul line when he makes his way back to the dugout.

  • More of the Sveum. With Johnny Damon on first in the fifth, Ramirez banged a double that should have scored Damon easily. But Sveum held him at third after Damon has already rounded the bag and was halfway home. The crowd got on the third-base coach with shouts of "wake up Dale" and "here we go again." You may recall Sveum sent many a runner to his demise at the plate last season, which may be causing him to be a little gun-shy this season.

  • The City of Palms Park crowd was literally half asleep by the bottom of fifth inning. They must have been exhausted from pushing and shoving for autographs all morning. Seriously, these fans seem spoiled from the World Series victory. There's more yawning at the park than cheers these days. And by the eighth inning, the place clears out.

  • Jay Payton needs to play. He went 2 for 3 on Saturday and every time I look up, he's on third base. I don't know who should sit (maybe Kevin Millar at first?), but Payton has been swinging a hot stick all spring and needs to find some at-bats besides spelling Trot-Johnny-Manny in the outfield and taking a few DH at-bats from Ortiz.

  • Meanwhile, Mark Bellhorn has been ice cold at the plate all spring. Too bad Payton can't play second.

  • Rays youngster BJ Upton took Jack Cressend deep in the eighth, prompting calls of "Ster-oids! Ster-oids!" Get used to hearing that at Fenway this season for sure. Oh, and that bomb blew another Sox lead, making it 4-4 as the pen failed again.

  • George Lombard tried to start a Sox rally in the bottom of the eighth. He hit a would-be home run that was just foul but followed up with a base hit that he turned into a double on sheer hustle. Hanley Ramirez had a chance to put the Sox back on top, but the hot-hitting shortstop popped up after sending his bat flying into the stands a few pitches earlier. Tim Hummel walked to keep the inning going, but Adam Hyzdu grounded into a double play that was bobbled in the field. Fans were stunned that Hyzdu could not leg out the bobbled grounder and get the run in from third. He's slower than he looks on paper.

  • The Denney Tomori experiment (11.56 ERA in 4 2/3 spring innings) should be over.

  • In the ninth, one lone Sox fan started a clumsy chant of "Here we go offense, here we go! (clap, clap)." But the City of Palms Park crowd was dead in the water at that point and so were the Sox, as the pen gave up three runs in last two innings to blow this one.

  • After the game, young guys in their 20s were standing around with boxes of baseballs to get signed by players on their way out of the park. I really hate the memorabilia-fest this spring training has become. Note to parents: Get your kids back into the game and not obsessed about getting some ink on a baseball.

    Sunday: Clement's early-inning struggles continue in loss to Twins

  • Forget being a great late-inning defensive replacement, Ramon Vazquez could start at second base for the Sox. In the first inning, he made an outstanding play on a grounder in the hole, though he could not get the ball to first in time for the out.

  • The third time wasn't the charm for Matt Clement, as his early inning troubles continued against the Twins, the only team he has faced so far this spring. Clement had runners on first and second with two outs in the first when Jacque Jones punched a single through the infield and the Twins were off and running with a 1-0 lead. While he didn't give up any walks this time, Clement gave up five hits in 1 2/3 innings before another had Minnesota up 3-0 at the end of two.

    On the plus side for Clement, he had a 1-2-3 third, striking Jacque Jones out on three straight fastballs and settled down as he had done in his prior two spring training starts. He finished with five strikeouts while going four innings in his longest outing of the spring. He's not going to make anyone forget Pedro Martinez or even Derek Lowe at this point, but he's got the potential to be a solid starter if he can get his early-inning problems under control.

  • Mantei looks like he's going to be the top righty setup man for the Sox, giving Mike Timlin a run for his money. Although Mantei gave up a hit and a four-pitch walk to catcher Corky Miller in his one inning of work, he continues to be able to throw the ball hard in every appearance this spring.

    Playing pepper

  • Jason Varitek does indeed look funny with the captain's "C" on his uniform, especially on the home whites. While it's not his style to stand out from the crowd and bastardize the traditional Sox home unis, he's being a good soldier and doing what the Sox brass want. Why they want him to wear the "C" is another story.

  • The rock radio stations are much better than the sports stations in Florida. They play all the old classics. On the way to Dunedin, two stations were playing Boston at the same time. "Hitch a Ride" on one, and "Smokin'" on the other. Can't beat that when the other option is auto racing and fishing talk.

  • Kevin Millar and family were spotted at Potts Sports Café on Daniels Parkway in Ft. Myers. Naturally, Millar was surrounded by yahoos as soon as he walked in. Rock star in the making Lenny DiNardo was holding court at Dwyers on Friday night, the new hot just south of Daniels and the place where you are most likely to meet a player. Nobody goes to Ft. Myers Ale House anymore, it's too crowded. (Apology to Yogi).


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