March 2010

A Francona slip?

The Red Sox have still not announced the rotation for the first handful of games of the 2010 season, mainly because of the unique dilemma of having three off-days before the eighth game. But it sure stands to reason that Josh Beckett is pitching Easter Sunday night against the Yankees. All you have to do is look at the way the schedule lines up, and Beckett’s last Grapefruit League start is Monday, meaning he would have five days of rest before Opening Night.

Asked if all the pitchers would be making the trip to Washington D.C. for the one exhibition game on April 3, Francona said, “Everybody will go with us. I think even Beckett.”

Veteran Red Sox scribe Sean McAdam kiddingly asked Francona why he would single Beckett out. Everyone laughed. Francona was then asked if this was a good time to announce his Opening Night starter. But he respectfully declined, saying that the staff is still going through the process of communicating with each pitcher and that players should be informed of all decisions before the media is informed. Fair enough.

As for other matters, Boof Bonser’s groin tightness from the other day was nothing more than a minor ailment. He is long tossing today and should throw a bullpen tomororw. No word yet on when he will get back into game action.

Staying in the minor injury department, Dustin Pedroia (sprained left wrist) will be back in the lineup for Friday’s home game against the Blue Jays.

“He actually probably could have gone today,” Francona said. “I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense. He’s already in the cage. The medical staff has no problem with him going through his normal day. If there’s any red flag at all, we wouldn’t play him tomorrow but I don’t see that happening. He’ll drive everybody crazy if we don’t play him.”

Lowell gaining comfort at first

It might be a long time before Mike Lowell thinks of himself as a first baseman, but the veteran is starting to feel more comfortable on that side of the diamond, where he started Wednesday’s game against the Pirates.

The only qualm Lowell had is that only one grounder was hit to him.

“Well yeah, I would actually love to get more groundballs but with Josh on the mound, I don’t think too many lefties are going to straight pull,” Lowell said. “Yeah, I’m feeling more comfortable. Picking a ball in the dirt, holding runners on, just doing more of the responsibilities, so I would say so.”

He is also learning that the position is much more social than third base.

“Absolutely,” said Lowell. “I was asked how the kids and family are doing. Is this guy making the team? When the first base coach is up with a runner on first, you almost can’t help but talk. When I got to first, I would say hi to the first baseman and all of that but you’re almost gone in three or four pitches.

“I feel like I know [Pirates first base coach Carlos] Garcia. He’s almost like family after just five innings,” quipped Lowell. No wonder everybody loves Sean Casey so much. He knows your whole family history. A lot more talk, a lot more talk. More bantering. I will say this — you’re involved in a lot more plays, which is better. I would say it’s a more comfortable position to play because you just don’t have to make that throw. That throw from third is what sets it apart.”

There are little subtleties Lowell is still learning at first.

“Trailing the runners, stuff like that, I’m just not used to doing,” Lowell said. “Like when runners go on second, I have to remind myself that I’m the cut-off to center field. When you’re doing a new position you go through that checklist a lot more until it becomes habit, but like I’m saying, it’s not a position that I’m totally foreign too in the sense of I kind of know when I’m playing third the first baseman is the cutoff man for the guy in center so you have to put yourself in that spot.”

And the offense? It is a work in progress for Lowell, who went 1-for-3 on Wednesday and is 1-for-10 overall.

“Eh, so so,” said Lowell. “Pitch recognition is coming slowly. I think in my last two at-bats, I at least swung at pitches I wanted to. “

Because he was coming off right thumb surgery and because he doesn’t have a set role on the team, at-bats have come slower than in a normal camp.

“Yeah it’s different. It is what it is,” Lowell said.

As for the right hip, which is now nearly a year and a half removed from surgery, Lowell says it feels a lot better than it did at this time last year. Then again, he also said his mobility hasn’t returned quite to the point he had hoped.

“With X-Rays and what I’ve done, I think what I was not aware of was best case
scenario was status quo post-surgery,” said Lowell. “Meaning whatever cartilage damage I had, which was technically was pretty signficant on the hip side, it wasn’t going to get better. I don’t know if it was my optimism. But I do believe it was what I was told — that it was going to get better,” Lowell said.

“In that sense, would I compare it to like I was running like in ’07? I would say no,” said Lowell. “So in that sense it was a little disappointing. I still stand that I am better than last year. There’s a certain condition in the hip that I don’t think will ever allow me to get the point where I was in ’07 or prior. In that sense, of course that’s disappointing but I think once I got more educated in what happened with the surgery, and I have more range of motion now that can cause more friction, it makes more sense.”

Now Lowell looks for his bat to give him a chance to test his speed — not that it was ever much a part of his game.

“Like I said, I’d love to hit a double or something so I can run around,” Lowell said. “It’s not that fun hitting popups. I did the whole college thing and round first. If healthy, I wouldn’t get there anyway. Yeah, it’s actually feeling good. There’s strength and there’s baseball strength and you have to get used to both of them and I think I’m getting there right now.”

Embree has solid Minors outing

Lefty Alan Embree, at least judging by the linescore, had no detectable rust in his first game action of 2010.

Embree pitched in a Minor League game against the Orioles’ Triple-A squad today, reeling off a 1-2-3 inning that included a strikeout, a groundout and a popout. He threw 12 pitches, 11 for strikes.

The next step for the 40-year-old Embree will likely be a Major League game on Saturday against the Orioles in Sarasota.

Aside from the good news on Dustin Pedroia’s negative X-ray, not much else in the news department.

Manager Terry Francona did express confidence in Clay Buchholz, despite his rough outing on Tuesday night.

“Two innings in Fort Myers in the middle of March,” said Francona. “I would rather take those nine starts that he [made late last year]. Again, that’s kind of what I’ve been saying. I know we have to make decisions on when guys pitch and things like that early in the season and that can get overblown. As far as we feel about Buck, he’s good. He’s gonna be good.”

Meanwhile, Manny Delcarmen threw a 1-2-3 inning against the Twins on Tuesday, but he hasn’t found his groove yet. The issue? Delivery tweaks.

“He and [pitching coach] John [Farrell] are going back and forth and it’s not like they’re butting heads.” said Francona. “They’re just trying to get to a point where he comes to balance and he can drive off that mound and have everything in sync. I don’t think we’re there yet. I’m just being honest.”

Daisuke Matsuzaka will make his long-awaited Grapefruit League debut for Thursday, when he comes on in relief of knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

Bonser takes a breather; Embree set for Wednesday

Boof Bonser set that he felt his groin tighten up during the last batter he faced on Monday, so he was in no way using that as an excuse for a shaky performance against the Rays. The Red Sox held Bonser back from baseball activities on Tuesday, but the injury is not believed to be serious.

“It was only the last hitter I faced, like the fourth pitch,” said Bonser. “They want to make sure this is completely gone and we’ll go from there.”

Will Bonser do baseball activities soon?

“I’m hoping so,” said Bonser. “I wanted to do it today but they said, ‘don’t do anything stupid and just take the day off’.”

Bonser is on the bubble to make the team, so he obviously doesn’t want to be held back by this injury. At the same time, the Red Sox don’t want him to push it too fast, mindful of the fact he had rotator cuff and labrum surgery 13 months ago.

In other news, lefty Alan Embree is all set to pitch in a Minors game on Wednedsay, representing his first game pitch of any kind since his right leg was broken on a line drive last July. Embree was signed to a Minor League deal by the Sox on Saturday. This marks his return to the team he pitched for from 2002-05.

Jed Lowrie? He is still sapped from mono, and not doing much of anything.

Any update?

“Unfortunately there really isn’t,” said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. “The update is that he doesn’t feel that well. He doesn’t feel well enough to do a lot besides, really, walking. He’s kind of got on the bike for short stretches. That’s kind of where we’re at. The problem with this is not only what he’s going through but probably trying to regain when he comes back. You know how you lose so much when you’re just laying around. That’s just how he feels. He’s kind of stuck in neutral.”

Is Francona worried about the potential lack of depth at shortstop come Opening Day? Despite Bill Hall making two errors there on Monday, Francona sounds confident he can do the job there when needed.

“I think Billy has really embraced going out there. He likes it, he enjoys it,” Francona said. “Just, again, the more reps he gets, the better off he’ll be. And he’s getting his at-bats all over the place but a lot lately we’ve played him at short because there’s been at-bats there. I think it’s been good for him.”

Meanwhile, the roster size continues to shrink. Michael Bowden, Aaron Bates and Ramon A. Ramirez were optioned to Pawtucket today and Jorge Sosa was re-assigned to Minors camp. That leaves 40 players in Major League camp, 39 if you consider that Dice-K is all but certain to begin the season on the disabled list.

Lackey stretches out in Minors game

The Red Sox pretty much know what they are going to get from John Lackey this season, and they know how professional he is about getting his work in. So it was without hesitation that they had him make Monday’s start in a Minor League Intrasquad game down the road, rather than at City of Palms Park, where an “A” game was taking place against the Rays.

At this point, the key for Lackey is just to continue the process of getting stretched out. He did that on Monday, going five innings and allowing three hits and one run.

Lackey, who hasn’t allowed a run in his first three Grapefruit League starts, walked none and struck out six. He threw 68 pitches, 46 for strikes.

“It sounded like he threw a bunch of strikes,” said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. “I think he had six strikeouts, gave up one home run. Sounded like he had a pretty good day though.”

Two members of the Boston media — Amalie Benjamin of the Boston Globe and Alex Speier of WEEI.com — took the trek down Edision Avenue to watch Lackey pitch instead of staying for the Major League game.

There were, of course, not just less media, but far less fans than normal for Lackey’s performance.

“It’s different, for sure,” Lackey said to Benjamin and Speier. “The adrenaline is not quite flowing like a normal game. I felt like I got my work in, located the ball pretty good. Got to the pitch count I needed to get to. Got it accomplished.”

After starting the last two seasons on the disabled list, Lackey is keeping a closer eye on himeslf this spring so there are no bumps in the road.

“I’ve definitely scaled back a few things,” Lackey said. “I haven’t thrown quite so much this Spring Training between starts. I’m kind of saving a few bullets. But I definitely feel like I’m where I need to be for right now. Got to the pitch count, so keep moving forward. I was more happy with my breaking stuff today than I have been in the past. I got a few more swings and misses going for a couple strikeouts that I got. There are definitely some times in games when you’ve got to go get one, and I was able to do that.”

In other news, veteran reliever Alan Embree, who was signed for a second stint in a Boston uniform a few days ago, threw in the bullpen before Monday’s game. Embree will pitch in a Minor League game on Wednesday.

“Then we’ll kind of go from there,” said Francona. “He just hasn’t been outside a lot. He’s champing at the bit, we’d like to get a look at him. But going too fast doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

V. Mart talks about Mauer

It is official — Victor Martinez will be the key catching free agent this winter, assuming he doesn’t sign an extension with the Red Sox before then. This, on the heels of Joe Mauer signing an eight-year, $184 million pact to stay with the Twins.

Martinez spoke for a few minutes this morning about Mauer.

“Man, that’s great, he deserves every penny he got. He’s going to be fine for the next eight years. He really deserves every penny. He’s obviously a great guy and a great player and I’m really happy for him.”

As AL Central rivals, they played against each other a lot. “Man, it’s a lot of fun. I got to play against him a lot when I was in Cleveland and it’s fun. The way he goes about his business, playing the game, it’s always fun to watch a guy like him play.”

Impact Victor’s situation? “I don’t know, man. I just worry about myself and just worry about being healthy and let things happen.”

How does this set the standard for the catching market? “When you talk about catchers, Joe Mauer is obviously a great player. With everything he’s done so far, he really deserves everything he got right now. I’ll just worry about myself and keep myself healthy.”

Victor still open to talking to the Red Sox? “It’s all up to them. It’s up to them. It’s all what they want to do. Like I said, we’ll see what happens.”

Twins spending that money, what does that mean? “They showed they want to compete and keep one of the main guys in their organization for a long time. That shows you they just want to go out there and compete.”

Has he talked to the Red Sox this spring? “No. Nothing to now.”

Will Mauer deal cause his own talks to start? “I don’t know, it’s all up to them. I just worry about myself and I’ll just keep working and be healthy and let things happen.”

Does Victor’s price go up now? “I don’t know. I can’t answer that question.”

Like to get talks going with Sox? “Man, you know what, I already told them through my agent that I was going to be more than happy to do it before the season. We’ll see what happens.”

“Well, like I say, I’m really happy about Joe and his contract. He really deserves it. On the other hand, I’m just worried about myself. I can’t control anything else. I’ll just worry about being healthy and keeping myself on the field.”

Nelson understands the situation

So Alan Embree walked in this morning, heating up the competition in the bullpen. Among those on the bubble are Joe Nelson, Scott Atchison and Brian Shouse. As manager Terry Francona mentioned, some of the pitchers’ “radars might have gone up a bit”.

But Nelson, the well-traveled vet, knows by now he can’t stress about such things. After throwing a shutout ninth inning against the Orioles, the righty spoke openly about the situation.

“Theo owes it to the people that own the team, to Red Sox Nation, to everyone, to exhaust every possible avenue,” Nelson said. “That’s their job and that’s why they’re good at what they do. They’ll bring in a truck driver if he says he can throw 90-mph and can throw a splitter. If they check it out for themselves and he can, they’ll probably keep him around for a while. They have to exhaust every avenue.

“I expect that from the organization. I’m not rooting against Shouse or Atch or Embree for that matter. We can only do what we’re capable of. The decisions are going to be made behind closed doors besides what we do on the field and even that, you can say, what do I need to do, throw nine perfect innings? And even that may not be enough. They’re looking for a certain person, a certain spot, chemistry is involved, your ability to pitch is involved. It’s more than just, ‘we’re taking this guy, he’s got the best numbers.’

“I’ve been on teams where I had a better spring than guys and they didn’t go that way. The Red Sox as a front office owe everyone to try to exhaust every possible reserouce. Alan is a 17-year veteran. He’s had tremendous success. I know he hasn’t pitched in a while and I know from experience how hard it is to come back. We’re going to see in a couple of days how far along he is. You don’t forget how to throw overnight so I’m sure he’ll do just fine.

“If it ends up he’s the guy, then that’s the way it is. Shousey, Atch and myself, we’re putting a good foot forward. We all think we’re going to pitch in the big leagues. It may not be on our time-table because we all want to be there April 4 and that’s probably not going to happen. Now, I’m trying to make the team. If I don’t make it, I’m going to try to be the first guy to call when something goes wrong. I don’t try to think about the second one too much.”

What excited Nelson on Saturday was some refined mechanics that he felt led to his best pitching since the middle of the 2008 season.

“I’m focused on what I’m doing right now, which is every time I get the ball to go out and work on some things. I’m excited,” said Nelson. “I feel good. I can honestly say that’s the best I’ve felt in 16 months, since 2008. Last year I went thorugh mechanical just cluster. I tried eveyr different thing in the world. Thursday I threw a pen on the off-day and me and John [Farrell] looked at my stride and it was really short. I got home and saw one glaring omission in the last two years of trying to throw the baseball. Today I felt good. I was just excited to be able to throw. I felt like I could have thrown 15 changeups in a row.”

Embree, one of those 25, is back

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Red Sox fans are always happy to get some reminders of 2004, and today they have one. Alan Embree, who you might remember as the man who got the last out in Game 7 of that American League Championship Series against the Yankees, is back on a Minor League contract with a Major League invite.

“He was obviously a very huge part of a very good bullpen for us,” said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. “He’s
got deception, he’s got experience, he’s got some power. I don’t know
where he’s at time-wise right now, but he’ll be a very welcomed
addition.”

Obviously Embree, who is 40, could be a a factor on the Major League team this year, or the Red Sox wouldn’t have signed him at this late point in camp. Hideki Okajima is the only other lefty reliever sure to make the team. Brian Shouse, more of a pure situational lefty than Embree, is also in camp, trying to make the team. Shouse is 41. Keep in mind that Embree, because of his late arrival, doesn’t figure to be ready for the start of the season. Then again, the Sox are keeping all their options open.

“Well, Alan is signed to a Minor League contract and today we’ll go out and kind of see where he is,” said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. “He says he’s almost game-ready. That’s encouraging for us. At the same time, we’re not going to go do something like that. We’ll go out and let him do his stretching. Whether that takes him to a bullpen or not is going to kind of depend on how he and John see fit. We’ll try to estimate where he is in his progression and then we’ll try to get him ready to get in games.”

The lefty reliever had his 2009 season with the Rockies end abruptly when his right leg was broken on a line drive.

Embree was acquired by the Sox in June of 2002 and was a key contributor as a setup man through the end of that memorable ’04 season.

In 2005, however, it all fell apart (1-4, 7.65 ERA) for Embree, to the point where he was released shortly after the All-Star  break. He hooked on with the Yankees for the end of that season, but rediscovered his form in San Diego (2006) and Oakland (2007-08). Embree had a 5.84 ERA with the Rockies last year before taking the line drive.

The 40-year-old Embree will try to regain his form for the Red Sox. He is here this morning and will address the media in a bit.

Embree has pitched 882 times in his Major League career, going 39-45 with a 4.59 ERA. In 774 innings, he has 691 strikeouts. Opponents have hit .254 against him in his career. He pitched 211 times for the Red Sox, posting a 4.69 ERA.

He came up big for the Sox in the 2003 and ’04 postseasons. In ’03, he didn’t allow a run in eight outings. If you remember, manager Grady Little was criticized for not bringing on Embree to face Hideki Matsui when Pedro Martinez faltered in that infamous eighth inning. Embree was called on 11 times by manager Terry Francona in the October ’04 run to the title, posting a 2.45 ERA.

“He seemed to have the ability kind of mix a little more his secondary pitches when he was in Oakland — that was the last time we saw him,” said Varitek. “But he was still powerful. I don’t know where he’s at right now, but he’s very welcomed. It’s a nice face to see.”

Father Farrell watches a hit

For just a moment on Friday afternoon, Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell became father John Farrell.

In a classy gesture by the Pirates, they brought Minor League infield prospect Jeremy Farrell on board as a Minor League extra for Friday’s game against the Red Sox.

So with John Farrell watching intently from the dugout in the bottom of the seventh, Jeremy belted a single up the middle against Red Sox righty Jorge Sosa.

Though Farrell was fairly modest in his comments to reporters after, you can bet he was beaming with pride. So, too, was Red Sox manager Terry Francona.

“Was that great? I hate to root against our guys but that was pretty cool,” Francona said. “That was fun to watch.”

John Farrell’s take?

“You don’t get to see him very often but to see him in this setting is pretty special and we appreciate the Pirates for bringing him over for half a game,” Farrell said. “You like to see the aggressiveness about him. He looks to be in great shape. I know he loves what he’s doing. We’ll see where it takes him.”

As for Farrell’s job as pitching coach, the Red Sox have some juggling to do over the next couple of days. The club has split squad contests on both Sunday and Monday. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield draws Saturday’s home start vs. the Orioles. On Sunday, Jon Lester takes the ball at home against the Astros, while Felix Doubront pitches at Dunedin against the Jays.

Monday, Boof Bonser pitches at home against the Rays, with Michael Bowden drawing the Jupiter assignment against the Cardinals. John Lackey will also pitch Monday, in a Minor League game. Obvioulsy the Sox gain more from monitoring Bonser, a bubble candidate to make the team, up close, than Lackey, who has breezed through the spring.

“A guy like Bonser, we want him to pitch in an A game,” Francona said. “You’ll see some guys pitch over at the complex. We do that every year. Lackey is to the point where he’ll go get his work in and he’ll be in good shape and we can watch the other guys pitch.”

As for Friday’s game, David Ortiz and Jeremy Hermida both belted longballs, but they had some help from a friendly wind gusting out to right.

“David, real good swing,” Francona said. “Like you were kind of alluding to, though, today’s a day where if you elevate it, it’s going to leave the ballpark. If he got the barrel to it, it went out. It’s a difficult day to judge your pitching. [Junichi Tazawa] gets one and looks like it’s a lineout or a double and it’s a homer. That happens. But it also kind of re-affirms, throw strikes, keep the ball down.”

Meanwhile, Bill Hall took a solid step forward in his quest to show the Sox he can be a backup shortstop, among the other roles he will fill. Hall made all the plays and looked smooth in completing a double play.

 “I thought he had a good day,” Francona said. “I thought he had a real good day. I thought he moved his feet. That was good to see. I thought he did a good job.”

Friday tidbits from Bradenton

Daisuke Matsuzaka has returned to Fort Myers today after witnessing the birth of his third child — a daughter — in Boston last night. Matsuzaka will pitch in a Minor League game on either Sunday or Monday.

Jacoby Ellsbury, ill the last few days, will return to the lineup for Saturday’s home game.

Utilityman Gil Velazquez, likely ticketed for Pawtucket anyway, has a chipped bone in his left thumb and won’t play for several weeks. Add that to the fact that Jed Lowrie has mono, and Francona is finding himself light on backup shortstops. Bill Hall is getting the start there today in Bradenton, as Tito and the staff want to see if he is still capable of playing that position well enough to warrant regular-season action there.

Mike Lowell is not in Bradenton, but he was at the Minor League complex in Fort Myers, getting some at-bats. He went 2-for-4 with a homer, a walk and three RBIs. Lowell will make his first Grapefruit League start at the hot corner on Sunday, but not sure yet if he’s at home or with the split squad in Dunedin. I’m guessing it will be in the home game.

One player to continue to keep an eye on is Junichi Tazawa, who has great versatility.

“Very interesting,” Francona said. “He can do different things. he can relieve, he can start, he holds runners. He’s another guy who has come a long way in a year. last year, looking at him, all the history there of coming out of the industrial league. Now he’s a guy that should not only be in a fight maybe to make our team ,but someone we really think highly of. He can be useful as a reliever. He throws strikes, he holds runners. You don’t want to write off a guy being a starter. Depending on what our needs are, he could always be a reliever. Having guys that have the ability to throw maybe 180-200 innings is pretty important.”

Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell gets to see his son Jeremy play up close today. Jeremy Farrell is a Minor Leaguer with the Pirates, and the Bucs summoned young Jeremy as an extra for today’s game. Classy move.

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