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Saturday, March 6, 2010
Quick hits: Rays 6, Red Sox 4 (split squad)

By Gordon Edes

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Red Sox traveled to face the Tampa Bay Rays Saturday afternoon.

The outcome: Facing a Tampa Bay lineup that may well mirror Joe Maddon's Opening Day nine, the Red Sox split-squadders fell 6-4 to the Rays. Justin Ruggiano followed Fernando Perez's leadoff triple in the bottom of the ninth with a walkoff home run off Sox lefty Kris Johnson. Ben Zobrist and former Sox prospect Kelly Shoppach both homered off Adam Mills in the fourth in front of 7,681, the largest crowd the Rays have drawn in their second year at Charlotte Sports Park.

Brett Harper, a journeyman minor-league first baseman (and son of former Twins player Brian Harper) borrowed for the day, had tied the score in the seventh inning with an RBI single. The Sox scored twice in the first on three walks, an RBI single by Adrian Beltre and a force play, all coming against TB starter Andy Sonnanstine.

The notable: Sox manager Terry Francona brought his regular infield with him mostly to keep "the league from yelling at me," his tongue-in-cheek reference to requirements that a visiting team bring at least four regulars for an exhibition road game.

The real get-acquainted work, he said, gets done on the days players don't get on the bus, which will be the case Sunday when shortstop Marco Scutaro and second baseman Dustin Pedroia will be kept back from the game in Sarasota to work with infield coach Tim Bogar.

Pedroia said he's already comfortable with Scutaro.

"It didn't take long at all,'' he said.

Sox PR staff notes that all four members of the Sox infield -- Kevin Youkilis, Pedroia, Scutaro and Adrian Beltre -- have scored 100 runs or more in a season. The last Sox infield that could make that claim was in 1951, when they had Walt Dropo, Bobby Doerr, Lou Boudreau and Vern Stephens.

Francona said he has never seen a third baseman take as many ground balls in practice as Beltre, the two-time Gold Glover. "He works at his craft,'' Francona said.

Rays manager Joe Maddon, who has a Gold Glover at third in Evan Longoria, was asked what makes Beltre one of the best at the position.

"Extraordinary quickness laterally, right and left,'' Maddon said. "He sets his feet in a very unusual manner. He actually throws flat-footed a lot, but a real strong, accurate chest-high throw. He's extremely good on slow rollers and bunts.

"He doesn’t have a flaw. There are no flaws, and his first move is as good as anybody.''

My ESPN colleague Jayson Stark also noted that Beltre looks considerably slimmer this spring.

Prospect update: Losing pitcher Johnson appears to be making the case that the Red Sox don't always get it right with their top picks. Johnson, a star at Wichita State who appeared to make a rapid recovery from the Tommy John elbow surgery he had as a sophomore, was taken as a first-round supplemental pick (40th overall) in the 2006 draft, but his progression through the system hit a wall last season, when he was 3-13 with a 6.35 ERA with Triple-A Pawtucket and wound up being sent back to Double-A Portland. Johnson has been a starter all four seasons in the minors, but at this stage appears to be looking at a move to the bullpen. The gap triple by Perez and 3-and-1 fastball crushed by Ruggiano did little for a pitcher who obviously needs his confidence restored.

A more positive outing was delivered by starter Felix Doubront, a 22-year-old Venezuelan who was Portland's pitcher of the year in 2009 with a 8-6 record, 3.35 ERA and a team-leading 101 strikeouts.

Doubront struck out three in two scoreless innings Saturday, whiffing Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist and Pat Burrell.

"He had a real aggressive fastball down in the zone and threw a couple really good changeups,'' Francona said.

"He has a nice fastball, but his other stuff is still raw. He's an interesting guy.''

Progress report: Jed Lowrie did not play in either of the split-squad games, but said he is encouraged at how his surgically repaired left wrist is holding up this spring.

"I'm happy with the way things are going so far,'' said Lowrie, who so far this spring has played five innings at second base but also expects to play at short and third. "I still have some room to go, work to do, but so far so good.

"There have been no setbacks, but I think I'm doing a good job of finding kind of the edge. It fatigues and I want to find that and push through that a little bit, but not where I'm going to hurt myself.''

Lowrie, Francona noted, had a terrific spring last year but within just days of the start of the season required wrist surgery. He'd played much of the 2008 season with a fractured wrist, and last April he had the ulna styloid bone removed from his wrist, a procedure reportedly without precedent for a baseball player.

"The game activity is still the one I have to build up endurance,'' he said. "It's getting better but it’s a slow process. That’s what can be frustrating.''

A healthy Lowrie would be challenging Scutaro for the starting shortstop job, or making his claim on a utility job. It may be more likely that he starts the season in Triple-A until the Sox are able to determine how he will hold up over a season.

"I'm committed to getting healthy,'' he said. "Let's just start with that. Then we can talk about other things.''

Next day: Clay Buchholz is scheduled to make his first spring start Sunday afternoon against the Baltimore Orioles. The game is in Sarasota, hometown of top prospect Casey Kelly, who also is scheduled to pitch.

Etc.: Francona, on getting updates on the Sox split-squad game played against the Twins in Fort Myers: "I called and was told it was 3-1. Then I called back and it was 2-1. I thought we got penalized a run. I'll have to check my sources.''

Former Red Sox manager Don Zimmer is beginning his 62d year in pro baseball. Zimmer, who turned 79 on Jan. 17, underwent back surgery in the offseason. "They told me it would be a 2 1/2-hour operation and I'd have a 2-inch scar,'' Zim said. "I had a five-hour operation and a 7-inch scar. But I feel good. Right after the operation, I had to use a walker, which made me feel like an old man.''

Zimmer said he had a message for David Ortiz: "Tell him he was the only reason I came out here, and he didn't come.''