Red Sox not worried about repeat


BALTIMORE -- If you're asking whether the Boston Red Sox can repeat as World Series champions, Jonny Gomes says you're posing the wrong question.

"We don't have to defend our title," he said. "Our title is 2013. That stuff is already in the archives. We're playing 2014 now. It's not like the Tour de France, where we're going to start with a 10-minute lead because we were in first last year."

No head starts on Monday for the Red Sox, who open the 2014 season in Baltimore against the Orioles, the first of 20 games the Sox are scheduled to play against division rivals by May 1. And the fact that the Red Sox will be the ones lining up Friday in Boston to receive their World Series rings won't make navigating the American League East any easier this season.

"Whoever finishes last in this division is really going to be ticked off," Gomes said, "because they're going to have a great team. Whether it's us, whatever.

"Everyone got better. Everyone added, through the whole division. If they didn't add players, they added health."

The New York Yankees got Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter back and spent a half-billion on Jacoby Ellsbury, catcher Brian McCann and Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, who did one better than Sox closer Koji Uehara last season; Tanaka didn't lose a game all year. The Baltimore Orioles added starter Ubaldo Jimenez and slugger Nelson Cruz, and should have star third baseman Manny Machado back by May. The Tampa Bay Rays brought back closer Grant Balfour and hung onto David Price. The Toronto Blue Jays have a healthy Jose Reyes.

But no one added a more surprising component than the Red Sox. This was to have been the season the vaunted youth movement was expected to take hold, with two rookies, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., penciled in to take over in the middle of the diamond, Bogaerts at shortstop and Bradley in center field.

But while the 21-year-old Bogaerts will become Boston's youngest Opening Day shortstop in 100 years (Everett Scott, 1914), Bradley was beaten out for the center field job by Grady Sizemore, who was in danger of becoming an artifact from another era before staging one last comeback bid that offers some hope of sticking.

At 31, Sizemore has responded exceptionally well to the program implemented by Dr. Dan Dyrek, the man who kept Larry Bird in one piece for as long as possible, and executed by the Red Sox medical staff.

"I think within five minutes of meeting Dan," Sizemore said on the day he'd made the club, "he had a better understanding of what I'd gone through than anybody else I'd ever talked to. I felt really confident early on."

After a half decade of nothing but physical setbacks (seven surgeries) and enforced idleness (he played a total of 104 games since 2010, none in the past two years), Sizemore can dare to dream again. The Sox are still rationing his workload -- five games a week, no more than three in a row to start -- but the thought that Sizemore could regain the form that made him one of the game's most exciting players, a three-time All-Star before age 25, cannot be so easily dismissed.

"I haven't had any days where I need a down day," Sizemore said. "They're still trying to build some in, so I don't do too much, too soon. But as far as hitting a threshold, I haven't gotten there."

Youth movement? Sizemore is one of 15 players who will be 30 or older by Mother's Day, including six who will be 35 or older. The most chronologically challenged list includes face of the franchise David Ortiz; both catchers, A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross; closer Uehara; rotation mainstay John Lackey; and new lefty swingman Chris Capuano. If this team goes deep into October, it will be not because the kids are all right, but because the old reliables are good for another go-round.

With advancing age, of course, comes the increasing likelihood of breakdowns, and the Sox experienced one on the last day of camp when 33-year-old Shane Victorino strained his right hamstring and flew to Boston Sunday for an MRI. He appears doubtful for Monday's opener.

"I think Shane's situation is going to be one of the challenges and situations thrown our way," manager John Farrell said Sunday. "We don't know what's going to come up against us or the challenges we will face. But as long as we remain resilient as we did a year ago, and face those challenges as a team, I feel like we'll be in a very good place or position as we go through this journey in 2014."

While the story in the retelling often has it that everything broke right for the Sox in 2013, that was hardly the case. Ortiz couldn't walk in spring. Lackey walked off the mound clutching his elbow in April. Closers Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan and setup man Andrew Miller all suffered season-ending injuries. Ross had multiple concussions. Clay Buchholz was shut down for three months with a sore shoulder. The Sox surmounted all of it.

And then there was Dustin Pedroia, the All-Star second baseman who slid headfirst into first base in the season opener in Yankee Stadium and tore a ligament in his thumb. He could have opted for surgery and no one would have questioned it. Instead, when doctors told him he could play if he could handle the pain, Pedroia played. And missed two games all season.

"You're out there for your teammates," he said. "With me out there even at 90 percent, if that helps us win a game you're out there. Everyone is out there."

After offseason surgery, Pedroia is healthy again. And it shows.

"It feels good," he said. "You can tell the way the ball is coming off my bat. I don't have to try to generate power. See the ball and hit it. It's good."

Even without Ellsbury, the Red Sox have plenty of run producers: Pedroia and Ortiz, for starters, Mike Napoli, whose great start last season did so much to compensate for Ortiz's absence, on-base man Daniel Nava, Victorino when healthy. Sizemore is an unknown, and to some degree so are Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks.

"Xander and Will, what they could give us in the bottom half of our lineup, particularly with the right-handed power they both have, not only would they balance out our lineup, they lengthen it," Farrell said. "It's exciting to see young players like that at least begin the season in a really good place."

But the place where the Red Sox finish, Farrell said, will depend, as it inevitably does, on how well the pitching staff performs. The most encouraging development of the spring, he said, is that none of the pitchers who carried such a taxing load deep into October last season appeared any worse for wear this spring.

And that begins with left-hander Jon Lester, who will make his fourth consecutive Opening Day start Monday against the Orioles.

"Strong from the outset," Farrell said. "What was interesting to look for, with really all of our guys who pitched so deep into last fall was how they were going to bounce back physically and what kind of stuff they were going to bring.

"There haven't been any lingering issues. Whether it's [Lester], Lackey, [Jake] Peavy, Koji, Taz [ Junichi Tazawa], every guy has done a great job in the offseason from a physical standpoint.

"Jon has come to the mound with powerful stuff. His command has been almost midseason [form] in a few outings. We're looking forward to that continuing, and he's setting the tone for the first time through the rotation tomorrow."

On Tuesday, the Red Sox will visit the White House, where they are to be honored for the third time in 10 years. Friday, they become lords of the rings, again. Their T-shirts read "Turn the F------ Page." Can they?

"We recognize the reminders of last year," Farrell said. "We should enjoy those and experience them to the fullest. But yesterday doesn't filter into today. Today is our primary focus. We have history with that approach. Today is our beacon and focal point.

"That's the same message, and that is what our identity has become. Everything is for today, and there's relentlessness to our preparation and how we compete."

Repeat as champs? The Red Sox will be content to win today. And see where that takes them.