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March 29. 2014 9:23PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Red Sox are expecting better in 2014


Boston Red Sox center fielder Grady Sizemore (right) is greeted by Jonny Gomes after Sizemore scored a run against the Baltimore Orioles at JetBlue Park last week. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

Recent history tells us that when the Red Sox are beckoned to the baseline on Monday afternoon in Baltimore, and the new season starts for real, it will mark the beginning of a regression.

After all, no team has repeated as World Series champions since the Yankees of 2000. Only five of the 33 teams to win at least 97games in a season since then have done it again the next year. No Sox team has won 97 or more in consecutive seasons since the 1977 and '78 squads.

Based on all that alone - not to mention how difficult it will likely be for the Sox to replicate the attitude and environment that cultivated their worst-to-first success - the expectation is the Sox won't be quite as good this time, whether that's an evaluation made by their win total or a world title.

But, then, history is constantly being made anew. And when remembering everything that these Red Sox overcame en route to their rings, a conceivable case could be made that the 2013 championship might've been more improbable than a 2014 repeat would be.

A lot of it has been glossed over now, understandably lost in the luster of a team that led its division almost wire to wire, won the AL East by a wide margin, finished with baseball's best scoring margin, and never even faced elimination in three playoff series. But the path to dominance wasn't paved nearly as smoothly as those facts make it seem in our memories. It wasn't quite so easy. There were issues - on-field issues - and they impacted every area of the roster.

Remember, it was on opening day a year ago that Dustin Pedroia tore a muscle in his thumb when diving into first base, and while he played through that - admirably, and well - it compromised his power. As a result, the Red Sox finished the season with just 12 home runs from their No. 3 hitters, the fewest in baseball, and with a .780 on-base plus slugging that was below the league average for that slot in the order.

Meanwhile, David Ortiz missed the first three weeks of the season while recovering from a heel injury. Stephen Drew opened the year on the disabled list, too, then wound up back there again in July. David Ross, whose immense value was ultimately proven in October, missed a couple of months because of concussion symptoms. Jacoby Ellsbury broke a bone in his foot in early September.

And all the while, third base was a black hole. Will Middlebrooks was disabled, then demoted, by mid-year, so while the East was still very much a race there was a 36-game stretch where 28 games were started by either Brock Holt, Brandon Snyder or Jonathan Diaz.

Yet the Red Sox wound up scoring more runs than any other team, and at the same time their starting pitching finished with the fourth-best earned run average in the American League despite losing one of the AL's best starters for three months when Clay Buchholz and his 1.71 ERA were sidelined by discomfort in his neck and shoulder.

Making things even more difficult was the fact that Buchholz' health concerns overlapped with an eight-start stretch during which Jon Lester posted a 6.99 ERA, so, for the better part of six weeks, the Sox were essentially without either of the two starters they projected to comprise the top of their rotation. And overall throughout the course of the year, they were forced to count on 15 starts from the combination of Allen Webster, Alfredo Aceves, Steven Wright and Franklin Morales, plus three more from Brandon Workman.

Workman ultimately wound up in the bullpen - and pitching big innings in the World Series - which says something about the unsettled nature of the Boston relief corps. Neither Workman nor Drake Britton had pitched above Double-A at the start of last June, yet they were candidates for important roles come August and September.

That was in part because closers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey both went down with serious arm injuries, and while Koji Uehara replaced them with one of the best seasons a relief pitcher has ever had, the transition created holes in the setup roles, as well as questions that weren't answered until the final days of the regular season. Also exacerbating the issues was that the team's most dominant lefty reliever, Andrew Miller, missed the second half after breaking his ankle.

Beyond Uehara there weren't a lot of clear solutions when John Farrell called upon his bullpen, so it's a credit to the Sox that we remember them for being so clutch and resilient, most vividly in their 11 regular-season walkoff wins and on the several instances they delivered with the game on the line in the postseason.

But in reality, they weren't so unbelievable in that aspect that they couldn't repeat it again. Last year's Sox won only two more games when trailing after seven (7) or eight (5) innings than did the brutal Sox team of the year prior. In fact, looking at the last three years, the 2013 edition won fewer games coming from behind (36) than either the 2012 (37) or 2011 (42) outfit did. And neither of those teams will exactly be remembered for its guts, guile and ability to pull games from the flames.

Of course, other factors will arise this year. There will be injuries and there will be disappointments. There will be players who don't quite live up to the level they were at last year, with drop-offs particularly possible in the cases of Uehara and Ortiz (both of whom are a year older), Daniel Nava (whose league-leaderboard numbers were somewhat inflated by a .352 average on balls in play), and Mike Carp (who was better than expected off the bench).

But all of those players could - and should - still be plenty good enough to again make major contributions. So if Pedroia is fully healed, if Middlebrooks can successfully hold his job, if Xander Bogaerts can be as steady as Drew at shortstop, if Ross can remain healthy, if Lester can be consistent, if Buchholz can make 28 starts, if Miller returns to form, if Edward Mujica adds definition to the bullpen and if the attitude is right, the road might actually be more manageable this time - and this Red Sox club might just be capable of making history.

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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