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April 05. 2012 8:20PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Late-inning irony aside, Red Sox say they'll be just fine, thanks


Boston manager Bobby Valentine takes the ball from relief pitcher Mark Melancon during the ninth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on Thursday. Detroit won, 3-2. (Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE)

As is their fateful way, the baseball gods made sure the subplots and storylines didn't escape any minds as the ninth inning unfolded for the Red Sox on Thursday.

After a tumultuous offseason ended with news that traded-for closer Andrew Bailey would miss months after thumb surgery, of course it was Ryan Sweeney, the supposed throw-in of the Bailey deal, who delivered a game-tying triple with Boston down to its final strike. Of course it was Mark Melancon, a day after being passed over as the closer, who came on to pitch the bottom of the ninth. And of course it was Alfredo Aceves, Bailey's anointed replacement, whose failure to strand the runners he inherited from Melancon led to a 3-2 loss at Comerica Park.

Of course that's how Opening Day had to play out for the Red Sox. After six months of circus-like build up, there could really be no other way.

But as inevitable as those final details may have seemed, the takeaway from the first day of the 2012 season wasn't the ironic circumstances, or even the result. It was the welcome return — for the first time since Labor Day, really — of baseball normalcy.

Viewed exclusively in the context of its own 3 hours and 7 minutes, and void of worries over a shrinking wild-card lead or what's going on behind the scenes, Thursday simply offered an enjoyable and entertaining reminder of exactly why we put up with all the other stuff in the first place — replete with reasons to be encouraged about what's to come.

Most exciting was the excellence of two of the league's premier starting pitchers, with Justin Verlander and Jon Lester combining to yield just a single run over their 15 innings of work. Verlander was particularly spectacular, picking up where his MVP- and Cy Young Award-winning season left off by allowing the Sox only three baserunners over his eight frames, and controlling the game with the command of his pitches.

But because Lester didn't allow a Detroit runner to reach third base until the seventh inning, Boston was able to withstand Verlander's dominance. As good as his counterpart was, when Lester left before the bottom of the eighth the Sox trailed only 1-0. And considering he's not likely to go up against anyone better than Verlander this season, that's a good sign for the lefty with something to prove.

“Even though we lose,” Lester told reporters afterward, “it's a confidence booster to go pitch for pitch against a great guy.”

It should also be a source of confidence that the Sox were able to piece together the game-tying rally against a closer who hadn't blown a save in his last 51 chances, reaching Jose Valverde for two runs in the ninth after Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez knocked hits, David Ortiz delivered a sacrifice fly, and Sweeney plated pinch runner Darnell McDonald with a triple off the wall in right.

En route to a 2-69 record when trailing after eight innings, by the end of last year the beaten-down Sox couldn't manage to rally against far lesser closers than Valverde — who finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting last season — and in readying for Thursday they probably hadn't faced many pitchers with as devastating an arsenal in the Grapefruit League.

But they competed. They grinded out at-bats. They answered the situation. They gave an early indication — too early to be conclusive, but heartening nevertheless — that their approach may actually be different than the one that doomed them last fall.

“Even losing the first game, I liked the attitude,” Ortiz said at his locker. “I liked what I saw from everybody.”

The first game of the Bobby Valentine Era wasn't flawless, of course. Particularly in terms of the fundamentals he was said to be preaching early in camp. The Sox had a chance to seize control early, but after Ortiz's leadoff double in the second inning, Kevin Youkilis failed to advance him (despite working the count to 3-1), and Ortiz was stranded. Ellsbury made a bad throw on the sacrifice fly that gave the Tigers their second run. Just before that, Sweeney played a potential out into a triple when he got turned around.

And the bullpen didn't do much to quiet concerns that are likely to be a prevalent part of the Sox' story for a while. Franklin Morales retired the two hitters he faced, but Vicente Padilla, Melancon and Aceves combined to retire only two of the eight batters they faced. The result was four hits, a walk, a hit batsman, two runs — and a loss attributed to the two pitchers at the center of the circus as the opener arrived.

That's OK, though. Such things are normal occurrences over the course of the baseball season.

And, for now at least, normal is just fine.

“We feel we have a great team and we're going to compete until the end,” Pedroia said. “We're going to be just fine.”

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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