Right now, little to cheer about
Welcome-home party loses its shine as Red Sox bring 1-5 start to Fenway
TORONTO -- Let's see now, a 1-5 start following a 7-20 September? Friday's lid-lifter at Fenway Park might be the most heartwarming home opener since the Bullpen By Committee was booed during pregame introductions in 2003.
Terry Francona says he's not coming back for next week's 100th anniversary event at the Fens? His successor as Red Sox manager, Bobby Valentine, says he can't wait to get back, but that was before the Sox lost the rubber game of this three-game set to the Blue Jays, 3-1.
Maybe the Sox should invite Francona to the opener. At least that way, they'd be assured somebody will receive a huge ovation. And the Sox ownership troika -- widely perceived, fair or not, to be the heavies in Francona's ugly departure from Boston -- might be advised to bring along earplugs. Any chance they'd be spared has all but evaporated in the wake of three straight losses in Detroit and now two out of three in Toronto.
"I think we have the greatest fans in the world," Valentine said when asked what kind of reception the team should expect Friday. "We'll find out."
All that brave talk this spring about getting off to a good start sure has faded fast, hasn't it, and it doesn't promise to get much easier at home, where the Sox return to face the Tampa Bay Rays, the first of three playoff teams that roll in for the first homestand. The defending American League champion Rangers are next, followed by the Yankees for the, ahem, celebration weekend.
"We're playing hard; we've got a great team," said first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, employing an adjective to describe the Sox that precious few others are uttering right now.
"I hope we're received well," he said. "Last year we were one game away from making the playoffs and it didn't happen. We love the fans, but it's one of those things where if we're not received well, it doesn't matter. We still have to play well."
It's hard -- some would call it delusional -- to assign greatness to a team that has not won back-to-back games since a doubleheader sweep of the Oakland Athletics last Aug. 27. That's a span of 35 games -- more than a fifth of a season -- and counting.
"We're too good a team to start like this," said Gonzalez, whose drive to the warning track in center in the ninth put the tying runs in scoring position before Kevin Youkilis struck out and David Ortiz grounded out to end it. "There are a lot of stretches in a season that you go 1-5, but it's like a hitter startng 2-for-20. It becomes a lot bigger than it really is, but that's the only stat line you can look at.
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"In order to win back-to-back games, we have to play good baseball," he said. "I know it's a cliche, but if we do the little things, we will win back-to-back games. Play smart baseball, do the little things, and talent will take over.
"Today we spoiled a great outing for Jon Lester. Score a couple [more] runs, and it's a great victory. We can't let these get away."
Lester has pitched very well in each of his first two starts, allowing a total of four runs and nine hits in 15 innings, and has a no-decision and a loss to show for it. The Sox have scored a total of three runs in his two starts, defeats to Justin Verlander of Detroit on Opening Day and Ricky Romero, the Blue Jays' lefty who quietly has ascended into the top tier of the game's best pitchers.
"That's the nature of the beast, when you go up against guys like that," said Lester, who set down 15 in a row between the Jays' two-run third keyed by Rajai Davis' RBI triple and a two-out walk in the eighth to Davis, who stole second on a pickoff attempt and scored on a single by Yunel Escobar. "Got outpitched again, plain and simple."
One of the little things the Sox failed to do Wednesday? After leadoff singles by Cody Ross and Mike Aviles in the third, catcher Kelly Shoppach was asked to sacrifice. His bunt, however, stayed just in front of the plate, and the Jays were able to force Ross at third. Thus only one run scored when Jacoby Ellsbury followed with a single.
Every day we go out there, we might be losing, but there's nobody out there dogging it.” -- Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis
"We're trying to get a lead," said Valentine, whose team hadn't scored first in a game until Wednesday. "Shoppach was 0-for-15 against [Romero]. Pretty good bunting situation."
Romero retired the next 17 Boston batters in order, a stretch in which the Sox hit only two balls to the outfield, and the Jays' infield turned some good plays and one sensational one -- third baseman Brett Lawrie snagging Ross' liner with a leaping catch to his left.
"We're not playing very well right now," Lester said. "The games we pitch well, we don't hit. The games we don't pitch well, we hit. Nobody in this clubhouse wants to start slow, regardless of years past. So like we said last year, and it sucks to hear, but it's a long season. We're going to keep grinding it out. That's all we can really do."
At 1-5, the Sox are still a game better than the 2011 team, which began 0-6 and 2-10 before going on a tear that didn't end until late August.
That was noted in this tweet from @SamAdolphsen, who wrote: "If the #redsox had started 1-5 last year, they would have made the playoffs."
Lester has personally gone to great pains to calm the waters in the wake of overheated accounts of aberrant behavior in the Sox clubhouse -- tales that might well make Popeye's Chicken a destination of choice for the crowd attending Friday's opener. Lester made lengthy apologies/explanations both last October and at the start of spring training.
"I don't know," he said when asked what the Sox will hear from Friday's full house. "Hopefully, it's good. Hopefully they see we're grinding it out, leaving everything on the field. Nobody's half-assing anything here. Nobody has half-assed anything in the past. They'll get the same things as years past. Grind it out, keep battling. That's all we can do."
Youkilis, who had two hits Tuesday to break an 0-for-12 start, had a chance to pick up Lester in the ninth but went down swinging against Jays closer Sergio Santos, on an afternoon that the Sox hit only three balls to the outfield besides their three singles.
Youkilis has been here long enough to plumb the temperature of the fandom in good days and bad. What will he find Friday?
"You've got to ask the fans that question," he said. "Every day we go out there, we might be losing, but there's nobody out there dogging it. Guys are busting their ass to first, guys are out there pitching and guys are trying.
"We want to win more than anyone. It's our job. It's our livelihood," he said. "We're going to go out and play as hard as we can. Sometimes we're not going to win. Hopefully we can change it."
Count on it, Valentine said.
"Six games is a ridiculously small sample," he said. "Means nothing."
We'll soon discover whether the folks buying the tickets -- Fenway bricks, anyone? -- feel the same way.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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