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Saturday, February 15, 2014
Koji, Red Sox begin spring renewal

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

Koji Uehara

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When Koji Uehara, free-agent setup man, walked into Red Sox camp last spring, his arrival was little noted, except by the small contingent of Japanese reporters.

Everyone was paying attention Saturday morning when Uehara, World Series hero, strolled into camp, and wouldn't you know it, the first words out of his mouth -- in perfect English, no less -- captured the intended theme of this spring.

"Happy New Year," he said, beaming.

"That's what makes Koji so awesome," catcher David Ross said, when told of Uehara's entrance. "When you least expect it, he makes the whole clubhouse laugh.

"His attitude is what I love. Without him, I don't know if we're hanging banners and getting fitted for rings."

The serious undertone to Uehara's greeting, though, has found its way regularly into the group text messages exchanged by Sox players almost from the moment the champagne dried after Game 6: Last year was great, but it's in the archives.

"Anyone who would bring up last year," Ross said, "five guys would text, 'Turn the page.'"

Koji Uehara
Koji Uehara punctuated his arrival with an apt expression of "Happy New Year."

Manager John Farrell, who met with the media on the first official day of camp -- pitchers and catchers' reporting date -- said he senses from his conversations with players that their heads are already in the right place.

"They look at their situation and our situation as a chance to do something special," Farrell said. "I've said this before: To me, it's critical to get back to the mindset of the first day of spring training last year, not Game 6.

"Last year is over and done. We'll have reminders. There will be a ring ceremony, a trip to the White House. Those are reminders that they should enjoy. Our focus is what we need to do today."

No team has repeated as World Series champions since 2000, when the Yankees won their third straight Series title. The Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-backers in 1992 and 1993, and that's it in a 35-year span.

The Sox were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the White Sox in 2005 after winning the Series in 2004. They advanced to the ALCS in 2008 after winning the Series in 2007, but lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 7.

"It's hard," newcomer A.J. Pierzynski said of repeating, and he has some knowledge of the topic: He was catcher on the 2005 White Sox team that won the World Series (and eliminated the Red Sox), then missed the playoffs the following season, even though the White Sox won 90 games.

"First of all, it's not easy to win the first one," Pierzynski said. "The second one is just as hard, if not harder. The second year we went out and made some great moves, got Javier Vazquez, won 90 games and didn't make the playoffs."

The Red Sox didn't have to look far for motivation last year at this time. They were coming off an embarrassing last-place finish in 2012, which had followed a shocking unraveling the previous September. Farrell was the team's third manager in the span of 13 months, and he was taking over a team that had pinned its hopes on an imported group of veterans who had had their own issues the previous season.

A year later, they return as world-beaters. So, where does the spark come from in 2014?

"They come back the same people, the same drive, the same motivation, the same work ethic," Farrell said. "Maybe the motivation [of vindication] you're referring to is replaced by the chance to do something extremely special. We take that mantra, 'Skip no steps.' That means we've got to get back to work."

They do so with a team that took one seismic hit -- losing free-agent leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury to the Yankees. They have a new catcher in Pierzynski, who replaces Jarrod Saltalamacchia, plus two rookies, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts, inheriting key positions (shortstop and center field) in the middle of the diamond, and a pitching staff that Ross calls better than the one he was introduced to last spring, with the addition of Jake Peavy and a passel of young arms whose potential he is eager to plumb.

Deciding on a rotation, identifying a leadoff man, figuring out how to deploy Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino against lefties and righties, those were among the tasks Farrell identified as priorities this spring.

There are others on his crowded agenda: Ryan Lavarnway is learning a new position, first base. Will Middlebrooks has taken some ground balls over there, too. Grady Sizemore, a one-time phenom, is trying to stage a comeback after not playing at all the last two years. Balancing a desire to give some extra rest to pitchers who carried a heavy October load against making sure they're ready for the start of the season. Identifying which pitchers from an emerging generation (Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Brandon Workman, Drake Britton) will be of service to the major league club this season.

Overriding all is the theme contained in Uehara's effervescent greeting.

"It's 2014," said Peavy, "and we haven't done anything."

Team to beat?

"That's not for me to go out and say," he said, "but I can promise you this, whether we are or we aren't, we'll take the field like we are every night. That starts here, the first time we take the field at spring training. We'll feel like the team to beat no matter what anybody says. That's just the mentality this team will always be with."