FORT MYERS, Fla. – A few observations from a week spent pinch-hitting on the baseball beat, thoughts of a kind colleague gone too soon never far from mind …
■ Most impressive thing I saw all week, other than seeing Carl Yastrzemski and Dwight Evans at a back-field batting cage and realizing both look 20 years younger than their actual ages? Easy: Watching Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi throw live batting practice on Wednesday to a group of wide-eyed minor-league hitters, including burly 2018 first-round pick Triston Casas. Sale’s slider looks like it begins in the first base dugout, crosses the plate, and heads in a hurry for the third base dugout. Lefthanded hitters facing him have a lot of courage and absolutely no chance. But Eovaldi’s splitter, which looks just like his triple-digit fastball until gravity appears to shove it straight down to the ground, is the most impressive pitch I’ve ever seen up close. If he can stay healthy, he’s going to be a monster this season.
Everyone watching Nate work. 👀 pic.twitter.com/ffaUmUXP0C
— Boston Red Sox (@RedSox) March 6, 2019
■ One of the many cool aspects of JetBlue Park is how near it keeps Red Sox history. I’m not talking about the semi-Monster in left field, or the other elements lifted from Fenway such as a version of the Pesky Pole or the replica retired numbers near the entrance (I still say No. 4 is really for Butch Hobson). I’m talking about who you see, whether it’s Jason Varitek chatting with Blake Swihart about the day’s plans, or Pedro Martinez stopping to sign a few autographs – and telling fans that he’s the spring leader in autographs signed – or seeing Jim Rice and Luis Tiant laughing hysterically outside the interview room, or hearing a golf cart honking behind you, turning around, and seeing that Yaz is riding shotgun on a rapid trip back to the minor league clubhouse. In the spring, history is in the present.
■ It was certainly encouraging to walk into the Red Sox clubhouse Friday morning and hear Dustin Pedroia exaggeratedly accusing a reporter of going to a Hooters for dinner and ordering clam chowder that didn’t even have any clams in it. I took that creatively abstract insult as a sign that Pedroia’s surgically repaired knee was feeling fine the morning after his spring debut, when he got a hit in his lone at-bat, ran the bases hard, and played two innings of defense in a loss to the Twins. He confirmed as much soon enough, saying, “So far, so good.’’ Pedroia is in great shape and sure looked like himself Thursday in his first game since last May 29. But to see him in great spirits is enough to make you believe that his comeback can be a satisfying one, even at 35 years old with a scar on his knee.
It's good to have ya back, Pedey! pic.twitter.com/o9J6LuKepi
— Boston Red Sox (@RedSox) March 7, 2019
■ For a decent portion of his early Red Sox career, I thought Brock Holt was overrated by a segment of fans who adored his attitude and scrappiness so much that they could overlook his limited production. It was a fairly significant segment, too. But I came around on him a bit last year when he came back from the lingering effects of a concussion to post a .277/.362/.411 slash line in 109 games while seeing time at every position but catcher, center field, and pitcher. My respect for him has only grown. It’s harsh, but he benefited from Pedroia’s absence, and he took advantage of it. Yet he has been open about rooting for Pedroia to come back in good form even though it would have a direct impact on his role given that he led the Red Sox in games played at second base last year (53). That’s grace right there.
■ Xander Bogaerts looks like he’s put on a few pounds of muscle over the offseason. I’d say he’s poised for a big year, but the more accurate statement is that he’s poised for another big year. I thought one of the more overlooked elements of the Red Sox’ success last year was his ability to produce runs while batting behind J.D. Martinez, who spent the season seemingly driving in every run that was on base when he came up. Bogaerts’s on-base plus slugging percentage was .883 with 71 extra-base hits and 103 RBIs last season. He’s no a longer skinny, precocious third baseman who held his own in the postseason for 2013 World Series champs. He’s now the Red Sox’ most undervalued star. There should be more of a clamor for the Sox to sign him to a long-term deal.
■ I most certainly am not a Florida man, but I’d give an enthusiastic five-star recommendation to taking a warm and breezy baseball vacation here. JetBlue Park is spacious, gorgeous, and generally reminds you of many of the good things about being at Fenway, with none of the bad (cramped seats, expensive parking, lousy sightlines, etc.) Tampa is about 130 miles from Fort Myers. Maybe the Rays should rent this place to play their home games during the regular season.