WHEN the Red Sox signed Grady Sizemore in late January – just three weeks before spring training began, and a couple years after his last competitive game – there were no real expectations.
There couldn't be. Sizemore might've been of the best players in baseball over the middle part of the previous decade, but his body had long since broken down. Since 2009, he'd undergone surgeries on his elbow, his right knee, his left knee, his back, and on a sports hernia. By opening day, it would've been almost six years since he played at full strength. Since he played like a star with the Indians.
But by the time that opener actually arrived on Monday afternoon, Sizemore had instantly become a surprisingly important piece of the Red Sox' title defense.
Sizemore put himself in position to be a factor with a productive spring, when he hit .310 in the Grapefruit League to beat out Jackie Bradley Jr. for the starting center fielder's job, though any thought that the Sox could gently ease him back in, or be luxuriously cautious about the way they used him, became increasingly difficult when a balky hamstring forced Shane Victorino to the disabled list on Monday morning.
Victorino was the guy who would've played center when Sizemore was slotted for a break, so his loss created a roster gap that required the club to recall Bradley. But, even more importantly, the loss of Victorino's bat left a gap in the lineup. And so, suddenly, given his credentials and his veteran status, the Sox needed Sizemore to be something more than a reclamation project.
At least until Victorino returns, there's pressure on him to be productive – though for starters, at least, he showed he might be able to meet those new expectations while far succeeding the ones set for him when he signed a couple of months ago.
Ultimately the game ended with a loss, a 2-1 defeat to the Orioles in which Boston went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position to spoil seven strong innings from Jon Lester (who took the loss after allowing the game-deciding solo blast to Nelson Cruz). However, right next to the performance of their ace on the list of encouraging signs for the Sox was Sizemore looking like, well, Grady Sizemore.
He began his Red Sox career with a sharp liner to right that fell for a single, then he led off the fourth by working the count to 3-and-1 for the second straight at-bat. Chris Tillman tried to claw back with his cutter, but instead Sizemore turned on the 91 mph offering and lifted it just over the right-field wall at Camden Yards.
It was the first home run since July 2011 for the 31-year-old who clubbed 33 circuit clouts during the last season in which he played at least 110 games, which was the same 2008 season in which he received MVP votes for a fourth straight season.
Exhibiting patience belying the fact it was his first real game in more than 900 days, Sizemore worked another 3-and-1 count in his third at-bat before grounding out, then he got to 2-and-0 in the eight before eventually chasing a pitch in the dirt and striking out.
He finished 2-for-4, and now he gets a day off to see how his body responds before presumably getting back out there again on Wednesday – perhaps even as the leadoff hitter. Not that the Sox will run from Daniel Nava after he went 0-for-5 in the role Monday, but that's where Sizemore usually batted in Cleveland, and from where he has a .366 on-base percentage in his career.
Then again, getting on base wasn't the Sox' problem Monday. It was getting them in from there, as they stranded a dozen runners, including two in the eighth, and two more in the ninth, when Bradley came to the plate after running for Mike Napoli a frame earlier.
It was the type of scenario from which the Sox seemed to consistently prevail last year, but instead Bradley was punched out. If nothing else, it was a smacking reminder that this isn't 2013 anymore.And for that, Sizemore, at least, is thankful.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.