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Hope springs eternal

Posted by Maureen Mullen February 12, 2009 05:55 AM

Forget about robins and groundhogs. For Red Sox fans, the true harbinger of spring is the day pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. This year, that day is Thursday.

Although some pitchers, including newcomers John Smoltz, Brad Penny, and Takashi Saito, have known ailments, the rest of the staff is relatively healthy.

“More importantly, at this point there’s been no surprises,” pitching coach John Farrell said of his staff in a phone interview last weekend. Farrell will have an interesting camp ahead, with a projected starting rotation that includes Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield, and an impending battle for the fifth slot.

Beckett started 2008 on the disabled list with an ailing lower back and right hip, and ended the season with an oblique strain. In between, he compiled a record of 12-10 with a 4.03 ERA. He was second in the American League in strikeouts per nine innings with 8.9.

“Beckett’s doing well,” said Farrell. “The off-season, the time down was needed. All the ailments that he went through during the season are behind him. I actually had a chance to see him throw a bullpen [session on Jan. 30] in San Antonio, and based on the one bullpen, I think he looks closer to the start of 2007 spring training than 2008.”

Lester, who threw a no-hitter against the Royals on May 19, led the team in innings pitched with 210‚ (seventh in the AL) en route to a 16-6 record. He had a 3.21 ERA (fourth in the AL) and went 11-1 with a 2.49 ERA at home. Many consider him at least a co-ace with Beckett.

“[He’s grown] in many ways that I think all of us can see,” said Farrell. “The gains in strength, return to his normal weight, the further physical maturity that he’s going through, for a guy who’s just turned 25 years old [Jan. 7].

“So we see greater differences because of what he dealt with, with the cancer [Lester was treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006], and the effect on his body in the treatment. … I think the combination of some success, his own confidence, and further knowledge of himself has really allowed him to evolve into a front-end starting pitcher.”

Matsuzaka was third in the AL in wins, with 18 (against two losses), and in ERA, at 2.90. His 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings ranked fifth. But he led the league with 94 walks in just 167„ innings, averaging less than six innings a start. Matsuzaka will not be with the team in spring training until after the Japanese team finishes play in the World Baseball Classic. Does that concern the pitching coach?

“Yes and no,” said Farrell. “No, because he’ll get his work in to physically be prepared for the start of the regular season. Concerned, yes, and it extends from a personal standpoint to all pitchers that are involved in the WBC. I think there’s increased risk of injury when a pitcher is competing at this level of intensity at this time of the year.

“When you compound that with national pride and a playoff stage atmosphere, you’re asking a body to respond to that challenge at a very early stage of the given year and the body might not be ready for that.”

Wakefield, 42, is the longest-tenured member of the organization, entering his 15th season in a Sox uniform. His 181 innings last season were second on the team. He went 10-11 with a 4.13 ERA. His catcher, presumably Josh Bard, will be the knuckleballer’s third in as many seasons.

Wakefield has not expressed concerns about the catching change, said Farrell, adding, “I think he has a great amount of confidence in the work that [bullpen coach] Gary Tuck has done with the three catchers now that he will have thrown to the past three years, to be able to handle him.

“We’re talking about someone who’s thrown in the last two years, the second-most number of innings in our rotation and the third-most wins. The shoulder ailment or the fatigue that he felt toward the end of last year has subsided. So he’s a main part of our rotation. I hate to think where we’d be without him.”

The No. 5 spot in the rotation will be determined in spring training or later. Penny will be among those competing for the spot, along with Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden.

“[Penny’s] been on a throwing program,” said Farrell. “He’ll come in, we’ll line him up to give him games, I would say, probably about a week into the game schedule, to give him additional time that we spent during the off-season, strengthening his shoulder. We kind of slid his time frame back a little bit to get that foundation as strong as possible. There’s been no setbacks. There’s been no surprises.”

Maureen Mullen covers the Red Sox for OT and can be reached at mmullen@globe.com

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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