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August 09. 2014 7:40PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Opportunity, audition time for many Red Sox players

WHEN THIS season began on the last day of March - back when the Red Sox were baseball's defending champions - the average age of the players on Boston's roster was 31 years old.

Now that the Sox are merely reigning champions, however, things sure have changed. The team's average age has dropped two full years, down to 29, in part because entering this weekend's series in Los Angeles it had seen eight different rookies combine to make 310 starts. That was the most in the major leagues, while the 114 combined starts by 21-year-olds was the most by a Red Sox team since 1966.

Much of that youth and inexperience is by design at this point, with the team having liquidated several of its more established assets prior to the non-waiver trade deadline, and having dedicated the rest of this lost season to figuring out who fits as part of the future.

That makes the Sox' 46 remaining games into equal parts opportunity and audition, with those who play well theoretically helping their case to be part of the impending reconstruction - but particularly so early in a player's big-league career that's not always as simple as pure physical talent. Much of it is mental, too.

And that's where Bob Tewksbury may be the game's foremost expert. After pitching parts of 13 seasons in the majors, and making an All-Star team, the native of Salisbury, N.H., received his Masters in psychology from Boston University in 2004, and after that season the Red Sox made him their sports psychology coach. His work focused mostly on younger players rising the ranks.

He remained in that role until last winter, when he was hired by the Major League Baseball Players Association as director of player development, so he didn't want to discuss the Sox situation specifically. But when reached at his Concord office last week, he did share his advice for young players, in general, looking to take advantage of an opportunity like the one currently before Boston's youth.

"A lot of players go up there and think that the big leagues are so much different than the minor leagues they have to do more, but it's really the same game, so what you really have to do is keep doing what you've been doing," said the 53-year-old former Merrimack Valley of Penacook star. "The perception of everything around you changes - the crowds are bigger, the opponents are more well-known, there's more media and what have you - and there are a lot of distractions for a young player to stay focused and to perform, for sure."

On the surface, it would seem these games mean little for a Sox team that woke up Saturday morning 15 games out of first place. But based on what Tewksbury said, there's importance to the club managing and playing the game just as they would in the heat of a pennant race.

After dealing away a chunk of the ex-champs, Ben Cherington, the general manager from Meriden, said the final third of the season would be the Sox' most important, partially because of the culture it would set moving forward. It would also help establish some regularity in what have been topsy-turvy times. And with such normalcy, players - including young players - are better positioned to succeed.

"You need to have consistent routines," Tewksbury said. "Consistent routines lead to consistent performance. Whatever those routines were in the minors, you need to carry those routines forward as far as your daily preparations. How much sleep you get, what time you get to the ballpark, what you eat, when you do your early work, what type of early work you do. Keep that consistency, and do it on a daily basis.

"If you have a bad game, or a couple poor performances, do not reinvent the wheel or think that something has to change. Sometimes it's a matter of acceptance that this is a tough level; there's no higher level than this, the players are good, and you need to be able to deal with that."

In that sense it helps call-ups to be able to lean on veterans, because many have experienced the same challenges of assimilation. In a lot of cases a player gets promoted when rosters expand in September, is indoctrinated during lower-pressure situations, then returns to spring training with some understanding of everything.

But a lot of players also get brought up during the season, which creates an instant opportunity. That, Tewksbury said, is what every player wants - but for the younger and less-experienced it usually comes loaded with pressure. He got his chance at 25, with the Yankees, though he said it was another five years before he could finally take a breath and feel as though he made it.

Until then, there was always worry about being sent down, which weighs heavy for most in their first three years. Ten of the Sox' 25 active players, as of Saturday, hadn't reached his fourth major-league season.

"Young players can be sent down at any time for any reason, so it can be a very anxious time because you get that opportunity but it's not guaranteed you're going to be there the whole year," Tewksbury said. "So each performance, each time out, each game, they're a little bit more intense and significant than for a player that has a little bit more big-league time."

The player who succeeds tends to return to Fort Myers a bit more confident. The player who struggles tends to show up a bit more anxious. There are no guarantees either way, of course, given the way rosters can change shape over the winter, but that's almost always out of a young player's hands.

So are a lot of things in baseball, actually, as Tewksbury said he tries to explain when advising."Control your controllables," he said. "After the ball leaves the bat, or leaves their hand, there's nothing you can do about the results except get ready to make the next pitch or get ready to try to hit the next pitch. You have to really focus on your routines and what's controllable and kind of get into a cocoon mentally."

He suggests limiting public relations work, and interviews, and other potential distractions - which isn't easy when playing in a place like Boston, where the media scrutiny and demands can be intense.

That scene has swallowed and spoiled players in the past, but it has also brought the best out of plenty of others who thrive under Fenway's bright lights. Where much of this current group goes in those terms won't be known for years to come -but the roots of it all will start to set between now and September. Mentally as much as physically.

"For the Red Sox," Tewksbury said, offering one comment on his ex-employer, "they're young, they're talented, and they've been honing their minor-league system for years with the hopes that they'D be in a position to see how much homegrown talent they could have - and the next two months provides that."

Stat of the week: The 2014 Red Sox were 22-22 in one-run games, entering Saturday. The 2013 Sox were 21-21.

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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