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Sox have Rays of hope

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  April 11, 2011 02:19 PM

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The worst is over, Sox fans.

The Red Sox vicious and viscous start to the season has left an ugly mark (2-7), but like any shiner it's starting to fade. Oh, there are still some very real concerns about this team -- Carl Crawford's somnambulant bat chief among them -- but the figurative storm clouds over Fenway are lifting.

The staggering Sox took two out of three from the Yankees to regain their equilibrium. Now, the only team in baseball with a worse record than the Red Sox, the Tampa Bay Rays, comes wobbling into the Fens for three games. The Rays, 1-8, are reeling from the unexpected retirement of Manny Ramirez, an oblique injury to franchise third baseman Evan Longoria and the aftermath of the free agent defections of Crawford and closer Rafael Soriano.

The defending American League East champions have scored 20 runs in nine games -- nine of which came in their lone win -- and are batting an anemic .163. The Rays are playing so poorly, manager Joe Maddon might have to take off those stylish frames he's famous for and avert his eyes.

While the Rays are looking for positive signs, the Sox already have some.

Three of the most important question marks entering the season were answered positively over the weekend against the Yankees. Is Josh Beckett still capable of being an ace? Check. Can the Sox count on Jonathan Papelbon to close out games. Check. Can you leave David Ortiz in the lineup to face lefthanded pitching? Check.

As with any baseball-related commentary at this point in the season, those answers come with the caveat of sample-size. But they remain reason to swap some derision for optimism.

Beckett looked like the best fourth starter in baseball last night, holding down the Alex-Rodriguez-less Yankees with eight shutout innings, while allowing just two hits and striking out 10. He provided a General Motors-sized bailout to Sox batters, who left 16 men on base.

"He located every pitch. He threw the ball where he wanted to. His velocity was great. He was Josh, man," said Dustin Pedroia.

The general consensus was that we would learn more about Beckett's bounce-back season from his second outing, against the Yankees, than how he pitched in his 2011 debut against the Cleveland Indians. That's still true. Who cares what Beckett does against the Indians, Mariners and Royals, all bad teams he beat last season? It's about the heavyweights.

It's obvious after last night that Beckett is still capable of being an ace-like pitcher. There was a serious and legitimate question as to whether he still possessed the raw stuff to produce an outing like last night's. Now, we know he still has the arsenal of an ace.

That was as good a start as Beckett has had against New York... ever. The 10 strikeouts tied a career-high against the Yankees, set in Game 3 of the 2003 World Series. He retired the last 15 batters.

Part of Beckett's injury-related decline last season was marked by his ineffectiveness against the American League East. The cantankerous Texan got turned inside out like a cheap umbrella by AL East opponents -- 1-4 with a 6.95 ERA. His ERA's against the Yankees (10.04) and Jays (9.90) looked like 100-meter dash times. Last night was a huge confidence boost for Beckett and the Sox.

Speaking of confidence, you have to have some now in Papelbon, who closed out the Yankees again without breaking a sweat. In two opportunities against New York he didn't allow a batter to reach base. The much-maligned closer has recorded nine outs this season; seven have come via strikeout.

Like any closer, Papelbon is going to have his hiccups, but like Beckett what's encouraging is that the stuff appears to be there. Hitters are swinging and missing at the big lug's pitches again. According to fangraphs.com, when swinging hitters have made contact only 43 percent of the time on Papelbon's pitches this season.

Nothing kills a contending team faster than instability and uncertainty in the back of a bullpen. If Papelbon can be a reliable option again at the end of games then it allows the Sox to set up the bullpen around him with Daniel Bard, Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler, etc., instead of trying to figure out how to use those pitchers to compensate for their closer's decline.

Decline is the state that David Ortiz has been in for about three seasons now, although there are several major leaguers who would take a decline of .270, 32 homers and 102 runs batted in, which is what Ortiz posted last season. Still, some rolled their eyes when the Sox picked up Ortiz's $12.5 million option for this season, especially with the club-friendly market for designated hitters and Ortiz's well-chronicled struggles against southpaws (.222 last season).

So far, it looks like Ortiz was a sound investment. He's not off to his usual glacial April start. In the series against the Yankees, Ortiz was 4 for 13 with a walk, a pair of doubles and two RBI. He had an RBI double off Yankee lefty Boone Logan in the home opener and singled in three at-bats against CC Sabathia before blasting a long double to the triangle against righty Freddy Garcia.

In spring training, Ortiz said he had to prove to himself he could still hit lefties. He is hitting .385 against them so far. The quick start means that manager Terry Francona doesn't automatically have to yank Ortiz from the lineup against a tough lefty or risk having a black hole. Francona doesn't have to choose between loyalty to Big Papi or what's best for the team, as he did last season. Something that was painful for both men.

Fixate on the negative, if you must -- it's kind of a lifestyle in these parts -- but 2-7 and all there are some positive signs from the Sox. Enough to believe this signals the end of a bad beginning.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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