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Red Sox have work to do

Boston seeking to climb out of AL East cellar

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Feb 28, 2021

Without any spectators on non-game days due to COVID-19 restrictions, JetBlue Park in Fort Myers has felt like a ghost town during the beginning of Spring Training. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

When you travel down the bumpy and rocky dirt road to the back fields at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers and watch Boston Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers in batting practice up close, reality fades away like the train on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” taking you to the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe.”

When you watch the majestic swings of the guy they call “Rafi” and listen to the crisp sound of the bat as it connects, you are reminded that Devers was one of the best hitters in baseball in 2019.

You forget for a moment that the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out the tradition of fans gathering en masse to watch Spring Training workouts. Or that access to players is limited to group Zoom interviews which also have limited access.

You momentarily escape the fact that only a handful of news media are assembled at the Red Sox practice facility taking photographs through the holes in the fences watching players practice like ghosts playing alone in “Field of Dreams.”

You even forget that the Red Sox, two years after winning the World Series, finished in last place in the American League East Division last year with a 24-36 record. With the way Devers strikes the ball, you start to believe that it’s a new season and that anything is still possible.

Red Sox pitcher Nathan Eovaldi (left), practically unhittable during the team's 2018 World Series run, posted his best strikeout rate last year. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

The Red Sox have lost their first two games of the spring but have shown promise in each of them and their players have expressed optimism with the return of their energetic and hands-on manager Alex Cora, who led the team to their 2018 World Series championship but who was dismissed before last season over the cheating scandal he was involved in with the 2017 Houston Astros.

Not much is expected of the Red Sox this year. Not after finishing last in the American League East Division and then unloading beloved homegrown left fielder Andrew Benintendi one year after trading away 2018 MVP Mookie Betts and a Cy Young Award winner in David Price.

Whatever his part in what transpired in Houston, Cora’s skills as a communicator and his energy on the field working with young players as well as veterans show why he is valued.

In an interview Saturday which was limited in media access, Cora said “we’re lucky to be playing baseball in the middle of a pandemic.”

Cora said it was important not to read too much into statistics of those who posted subpar results last year but said players like J.D. Martinez and Devers (who led baseball in total bases in 2018 and 2019 respectively) “were honest about” the decline in their numbers even in a limited sample. “There are certain guys who have to make adjustments,” Cora said. “We’ll keep working to get better.”

Red Sox righty Tanner Houck had a 0.53 ERA in his first three big league starts in 2020. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

Cora said playing “clean baseball is very important defensively” and wants to “keep the energy up.”

The Red Sox will have a number of new faces this year including former Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino, former Dodgers outfielder Enrique Hernandez, former Twins and Astros infielder Marwin Gonzalez and former Angels and Padres pitcher Garrett Richards.

The news out of camp on Monday that shortstop Xander Bogaerts is dealing with shoulder soreness could deal a big blow to the plans of Boston. Their top hitter last year, any missed time or decreased production from Bogaerts would endanger their hopes of a turnaround.

The team’s hopes for climbing out of the AL East cellar could get a boost from more of the utter domination that they saw from righty Tanner Houck last year when he allowed just one earned run in the first 17 innings of his career.

The team will also have pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez back after he missed last season due to complications from COVID-19 and other health issues. They hope to have Chris Sale back from Tommy John surgery by mid-season.

Former Red Sox Captain Jason Varitek, a two-time World Series champion with the club, is back with the team and helping with coaching. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

In addition, the team has a group of young players who could surprise. Michael Chavis, Bobby Dalbec and Jeter Downs homered on Sunday in the team’s spring opener. The team also has 2014 first round pick Christian Arroyo and 2014 second round pick Michael Gettys on their spring roster.

The team also has former captain Jason Varitek, a two-time World Series champion with the Red Sox, helping with coaching. “I’m glad that he’s with me,” Cora said. Cora said Varitek was “the guy running the show” as a player.

Red Sox catcher Connor Wong could be the future at the backstop. He came over in the Mookie Betts, David Price trade and hit .300 last season in seven games. He hit .349 in Double-A in 2019.

On Monday, the Atlanta Braves defeated the Boston Red Sox 5-3 at Fenway Park South. Newly acquired pitcher Garrett Richards gave up two runs, three hits, two walks and struck out one in two innings to take the loss for Boston, which is 0-2 to start Spring Training.

All Red Sox games have sold out this spring and each game will have a capacity of 24%.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora addresses a group of players this past week in training camp at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers. Cora is back with the club following a parting of ways last year over Cora's involvement in a cheating scandal with the Houston Astros in 2017. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

Red Sox infielders Marwin Gonzalez (left) and Rafael Devers (right) take part in batting practice at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers on Saturday. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

Red Sox manager Alex Cora addresses a group of players this past week in training camp at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

The Red Sox can only go up off their 2020 performance after they finished last in the American League East. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

Red Sox players run drills Saturday at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg