THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Beloved bashers take a defensive stance

It may say Opening Day behind home plate at Fenway Park, but when the Red Sox meet the Yankees at 8 p.m. it will actually be Opening Night. It may say Opening Day behind home plate at Fenway Park, but when the Red Sox meet the Yankees at 8 p.m. it will actually be Opening Night. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 4, 2010

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First Night meets Easter Day. Play ball.

Holidays, holy days, high water?

No problem. This is New England. We love our teams. The games will be played and we will watch.

The Red Sox meet the world champion (ugh) Yankees tonight at Fenway Park in the 110th home opener for Boston’s American League franchise. After decades of skipping school and work for Opening Day — transgressions forgiven by the majority of teachers and bosses in our region — Sox fans this year are asked to mix baseball with Easter and Passover observances.

Think of it this way: If you gave up cake and beer for Lent, tonight you can celebrate the end of Lent with beer and peanuts.

The Sox have never opened at home on Easter (or at night), but nothing is sacred when the local teams are in season. The Celtics regularly play on Christmas and are home this afternoon against the mighty Cleveland Cavaliers. The Patriots will play at Detroit on Thanksgiving this year and played on Christmas Eve in Jacksonville in 2006. The Sox opened their home season on Good Friday in 2001 and ’03.

Secular holidays are similarly swallowed whole. Baseball games on Labor Day and the Fourth of July highlight the hardball calendar. And let’s not forget that Hub sports fans gathered at Fenway Jan. 1 for a festival of pucks and pageantry, celebrating regional hockey culture while reminding America that a little snow on the sidewalk can’t discourage Boston fans from their appointed rounds. Candidate Scott Brown made his Senatorial bones shaking hands in the cold outside Fenway on New Year’s Day.

Opening Day is baseball’s real New Year’s Day, and this 99th Fenway lid-lifter (one for every bottle of beer on the Wall) is one in which the home team will truly ring in the new. When the local nine takes the field, Sox fans can officially say hello to Mike Cameron, Adrian Beltre, and Marco Scutaro.

It’s not often that the Sox introduce three starting position players, especially after a 95-win season, but Theo Epstein’s 2009-10 harvest yielded a new center fielder, third baseman, and shortstop. Cameron is taking over in center for Jacoby Ellsbury, who has been shifted to left field to replace the departed Jason Bay.

Beltre is taking over third base for Mike Lowell, who is still here even though the Sox actually traded him to Texas in December (the trade was voided when Lowell showed up in Texas with a thumb injury that required surgery).

Scutaro comes to Boston from Toronto and is being asked to fill the black hole that has swallowed every Sox shortstop (Edgar Renteria? Julio Lugo?) since Nomar Garciaparra shot his way out of town in 2004.

The 2010 Sox are all about run prevention, but some of us think that’s just a convenient excuse for the fact that they failed to sign the guy they wanted after 2008 — slugger Mark Teixeira, who instead joined the Yankees — and they failed to keep Bay (36 homers, 119 RBIs) from signing with the Mets.

The Sox were third in the league in offense last year, but there is legitimate concern about the lineup after the top-half quartet of Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, and Kevin Youkilis. The once-indomitable David Ortiz could kill them in the No. 5 hole if he continues his freefall from greatness. Big Papi can’t hit lefties anymore and basically does nothing against good pitching. He says he has nothing to prove, but the Sox can’t be patient with him again all year.

That leaves the bottom of the order to prove that Epstein didn’t make a mistake by signing older defensive specialists to short-term deals. Cameron, Beltre, and Scutaro will be under a lot of pressure.

The pitching looks terrific. On paper, the Sox have the best rotation in baseball with Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey (another Boston newbie, acquired for a mere $82.5 million for the next five years), Tim Wakefield, and Clay Buchholz.

Manager Tito Francona would like a reliable lefty reliever in addition to Hideki Okajima, and Manny Delcarmen is in a two-year slump, but otherwise the Boston bullpen looks good. Jonathan Papelbon, who flamed out in the final innings of the 2009 playoffs, should be fine. If not, Daniel Bard is happy to step up and throw 100 miles per hour.

Epstein has put a lot of pressure on his defense. Never has there been this much talk about catching the ball, and anything less than nine Gold Gloves seems unacceptable. Woe is he who makes the first error. Run prevention is supposed to make up for all the homers Bay took to Citi Field.

This is Francona’s seventh season, and the Sox have made the playoffs in five of his first six campaigns. He has quietly carved out his place as the best manager in the history of the franchise. Success has enabled him to make decisions independent of the white noise that comes from the stands, the newspapers, the airwaves, and cyberspace.

Sports Illustrated picks the Sox to finish third in the American League East. Baseball America is calling for 94 wins and another wild-card berth. Baseball Prospectus has the Sox on top of the AL with 95 wins.

They were swept in the first round of the playoffs last year. Our final memory of the 2009 season is the image of Papelbon blowing the lead in the ninth against the Angels. More than five months have passed since that fateful October Sunday. More than a little water under the bridge. Even some water over the bridge.

The planets realign tonight a little after 8, when Derek Jeter steps into the batter’s box to face Beckett. Jeter will be roundly booed by Fenway’s 551st consecutive sellout, and we will know we survived another New England winter. Baseball is back.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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