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Three takeways from Opening Day

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The Red Sox greeted Grady Sizemore (38) in the dugout after he hit a solo home run in the fourth inning of Monday's opening game against the Baltimore Orioles.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
When the Red Sox signed Grady Sizemore back in January, there were few – if any – real expectations. There couldn’t be. It had been more than two years since he played a game, more than five years and as many surgeries since he was a star with the Indians.

But between then and Monday’s season opener in Baltimore, things changed. Sizemore played exhibition games. He ran into walls. He faced big-league pitching. He cleared all the hurdles health-wise. He won the job as the Red Sox center field to start the season.

And finally – when Shane Victorino was placed on the disabled list prior to the game Monday – he found himself as a potentially important piece of what the Sox will do early in the season. And with that there suddenly comes real expectations.

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033114sizemore607.jpg
The Red Sox greeted Grady Sizemore (38) in the dugout after he hit a solo home run in the fourth inning of Monday's opening game against the Baltimore Orioles.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
When the Red Sox signed Grady Sizemore back in January, there were few – if any – real expectations. There couldn’t be. It had been more than two years since he played a game, more than five years and as many surgeries since he was a star with the Indians.

But between then and Monday’s season opener in Baltimore, things changed. Sizemore played exhibition games. He ran into walls. He faced big-league pitching. He cleared all the hurdles health-wise. He won the job as the Red Sox center field to start the season.

And finally – when Shane Victorino was placed on the disabled list prior to the game Monday – he found himself as a potentially important piece of what the Sox will do early in the season. And with that there suddenly comes real expectations.

With Victorino out, not only do the Sox lose the player who was expected to spell Sizemore in center field when his comeback needed a break, but Boston also lost a relied-upon bat in their lineup. Calling up Jackie Bradley Jr. can help fill the void in terms of the former, but after striking out to end the Sox’ 2-1 loss at Baltimore, the rookie is now 18-for-96 (.188) in his brief major-league career, so in the short term there are questions about whether he can be counted upon to meet the challenge of the latter.

And so it’ll be up to Sizemore.

Fortunately for the Sox, his debut in their road grays was encouraging, to say the least. He began his Red Sox career with a sharp liner to right that fell for a single, then followed that by working the count to 3-and-1 for the second straight at-bat as the leadoff man in the fourth. At that point Chris Tillman tried to beat him with a cutter inside, but instead Sizemore turned on the 91 mph offering and lifted it just over the right-field wall at Camden Yards.

It was the first home run since July 2011 for the 31-year-old, and in his subsequent trips to the box he continued to exhibit patience that belied the fact it was his first real game in more than 900 days. He worked another 3-and-1 count in his third at-bat before grounding out, then he got to 2-and-0 in the eight before eventually chasing a pitch in the dirt and striking out.

He finished 2-for-4. And, at least for a day, looked like a worthwhile investment of $750,000. Even if that price tag rises with each incentive he meets.

***

Coming off a season in which they saw more pitches than any team in the majors, the Sox opened 2014 by executing that same offensive strategy successfully. They just couldn’t come through with the hit they needed to make it count.

Daniel Nava setting the tone with a seven-pitch encounter to open the year, Boston drove Baltimore starter Tillman out of the game after only five innings by driving his pitch count up to 102 – but despite nine hits and three walks, they were unable to reach Baltimore pitching for anything more than Sizemore’s fourth-inning solo blast.

The Sox were retired in order only once, but four times left at least two runners aboard, including in both the eighth and ninth innings, when they failed to capitalize against an Oriole bullpen that’s counting on Tommy Hunter as its closer only because it really doesn’t have any other options.

In the eighth, manager John Farrell let A.J. Pierzynski hit for himself with runners on first and second, despite the fact that the O’s countered with southpaw Brian Matusz, who limited lefties to a .168 average and .502 OPS against him last season – and Pierzynski was retired on a comebacker to the mound.

The next inning the Sox actually put two aboard with only one out, as Will Middlebrooks got hit by a pitch, and Dustin Pedroia lined a single to left-center. But Hunter got ahead of David Ortiz, 0-and-2, before coaxing a flyball to left. Then Bradley was punched out on a pitch he believed was up, but home plate umpire Dana DeMuth deemed a strike.

That was the 169th pitch the Orioles threw on the afternoon, compared to the 117 needed – albeit in one fewer frame – by Jon Lester and Junichi Tazawa. But it was good enough to strand the 11th and 12th Boston baserunners, and drop the Sox as a team to 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

Give it a few weeks and that’ll more than likely seem nothing more than an aberration for the team that ranked second-best in the AL last year with runners in scoring position, batting .278 with a .794 OPS.

***

Farrell’s decision to stick with Pierzynski in the eighth was justifiable. The manager explained afterward that he trusted his hitter would to make contact and to give him a good at-bat. Beyond that, hitting for the catcher there could’ve potentially left the Sox compromised if the game had gone to extra innings and had David Ross subsequently gotten hurt.

Plus, Pierzynski was actually better against lefties last season than he was against righties (.279 to .269), and he was a respectable 2-for-8 against Matusz. Potential pinch-hitter Jonny Gomes had homered in one of three career encounters with the Orioles'; lefty, but managers tend to err on the side of keeping a catcher on the bench, especially so early in the year. It made sense.

So did Farrell’s choice to send Lester back out for the seventh, even with Nelson Cruz due to lead off the inning. Entering that at-bat, Cruz was 10 for 23 lifetime against Lester, and had reached base in 13 of 26 plate appearances while also hitting a couple of homers. He’d already walked in the game, too. It wasn’t a good matchup.

But Lester was only at 92 pitches. Since the second inning all he’d allowed was three ground ball singles, and he appeared to be in control – an appearance that was validated when he struck out the three batters after Cruz, the last of which came via a 93 mph heater.

He made one bad pitch trying to get ahead of Cruz with his first bullet of the seventh, and the Orioles’ new acquisition made him by depositing it past the left field fence. When the Sox couldn’t capitalize on their own chances in the next two frames, that decided the game. But it’s hard to fault Farrell for trusting his ace to be more careful than that.