|Top 4: Baldelli familiarizes himself with Fenway turf||04.08.09 at 8:31 pm ET|
Though Rocco Baldelli’s first at-bat as a Red Sox was nothing to write home about — but then, who writes home anymore? — he made an impression (quite literally) in Fenway Park in the top of the fourth. Playing right field, Baldelli raced in on a shallow fly ball from Dioner Navarro and made a diving catch just off the turf. It was a great grab that underscored the notion that the athletic Baldelli is indeed a superb defender capable of playing anywhere in the outfield.
By the way, for those wondering about Baldelli’s availability, manager Terry Francona pointed out that during spring training, he played four straight days in a stretch. Granted, two of those were pinch-hitting appearances, and one was a D.H. assignment, but nonetheless, it was considered a promising sign for a player whose channelopathy (a condition that leaves the body fatigued) once seemed to present a danger to his ability to play at all.
Baldelli popped out to right in the bottom of the fourth, and Rays starter Scott Kazmir quickly retired Jason Bay (fly to right) and Mike Lowell (liner to center) to continue what appears to be a pitching duel of impressive 25-year-old southpaws.
|Bottom 3: Red Sox MVP guys tie the game||04.08.09 at 8:25 pm ET|
Dustin Pedroia jumpstarted the Red Sox season with an Opening Day homer in the first inning, and repeated the feat by injecting life into his team’s lineup in the third inning against Scott Kazmir. Kazmir recorded seven outs without allowing a hit to start the game, but Pedroia doubled to left center (over the head of center fielder Gabe Kapler). Then, with two outs, Kevin Youkilis delivered a single up the middle. Though there might have been a play at the plate on a strong throw by Kapler, Rays first baseman Carlos Pena cut off the throw to retire Youkilis, who was advancing towards second.
It is worth recalling Youkilis’ outrageously good numbers of a year ago with two outs and runners in scoring position. In 2008, he hit .328/.461/.492/.952 in those situations. His .952 OPS in such marks was 13th best in the A.L. David Ortiz led the A.L. with a 1.362 line in those circumstances.
Rays 1, Red Sox 1
|Top 3: Blindfold removed||04.08.09 at 8:14 pm ET|
After a quick bottom of the second for the Sox, the Rays have jumped onto the board in the third thanks to a most unusual development. Jon Lester yielded a leadoff double to Aki Iwamura, an infield single by Jason Bartlett (on which Iwamura was unable to advance) and, finally, an infield single to first by Carl Crawford. On Crawford’s hit, first baseman Kevin Youkilis made an impressive stab of the ball with a diving play to his right, but his throw hit Bartlett and deflected into left field, allowing Crawford to score. Youkilis, who went through all of the 2007 season without an error and committed just four last year, was charged with the E3. Somewhere, a society of Stuffy McInnis loyalists smiles.
Though Lester gave up a run, the way in which he limited damage was fairly fascinating. With runners on first and second and no outs, the Rays could have added on to their lead. But Lester surprised Evan Longoria of the Rays with a 1-2 changeup that the reigning Rookie of the Year rolled to short for a 6-4-3 double play. Lester spent much of the spring, of course, working to refine his change for precisely that sort of reason. Last year, he would throw the pitch roughly five or seven times a game, but rarely to any real effect. This time, as it dove down and away from Longoria, the result was a key twin-killing that allowed Lester to escape unscathed when Carlos Pena grounded (yes, contact for Pena) to second for the final out of the inning.
Rays lead 1-0.
|Top 2: Rays hitters enter batter’s box with cigarette and blindfold||04.08.09 at 7:51 pm ET|
Scott Kazmir and Jon Lester, two of the more uncomfortable left-handed pitchers to face in the American League, are surely no treat in the frigid weather. Lester, in particular, thanks to the aforementioned cutter, seems all but guaranteed to create misery in the hands and minds of opposing hitters.
That much seems apparent through his first two innings of work. Lester, after striking out a pair in the first, issued a leadoff walk to Rays hitter (and World Series bling-wearer) Pat Burrell, but then struck out hte next three hitters: Dioner Navarro looking on a sweeping curve, Ben Zobrist swinging on a curve that dropped on his shoes and Gabe Kapler on a 93 mph fastball that tailed up and away from the former Red Sox.
That’s five strikeouts in two innings. In case you were wondering, Lester’s career high in strikeouts is 10, achieved against the hapless Nationals in 2006.
|Rocco Baldelli’s debut||04.08.09 at 7:44 pm ET|
Rocco Baldelli had the opportunity for a quasi-scripted moment in his first at-bat with the Red Sox, stepping to the plate with two on and two out in the first inning against Rays pitcher (and former Baldelli teammate) Scott Kazmir. But Baldelli did not channel “The Natural” or any other cinematic triumph, watching a 2-2 fastball clip the outside corner at 92 mph for the third out.
|Jon Lester’s cutter is alarmingly good||04.08.09 at 7:32 pm ET|
During spring training, the Red Sox restricted Jon Lester’s use of the cutter in order to avoid having the pitcher block off his delivery in a fashion that might ultimately cost him fastball velocity. There is a theory that pitchers who become overly reliant on the cutter tend to loose some of the oomph on their normal four-seam fastball. Lester was unperturbed by the prospect, suggesting that the cut fastball is a pitch that comes so naturally to him that it is always in his pocket, and that he did not need to employ it with any real frequency in exhibition contests.
In the first inning tonight, Lester proved the truth of that boast. He struck out leadoff man Jason Bartlett as well as cleanup hitter Carlos Pena in the inning, getting both on cutters. Bartlett stared at the pitch, while Pena nearly corkscrewed himself into the dirt in missing a nasty 91 mph pitch that darted back into his hands.
While Lester’s season thus commenced with in auspicious fashion, Haverhill native Pena has commenced poorly. Five at-bats into the campaign, he is still looking to make contact for the first time, having struck out in all four of his plate appearances on Tuesday and his first on Wednesday.
|Rays lineup, 4/8||04.08.09 at 6:51 pm ET|
Pat Burrell swooped into the Tampa Bay dugout a few minutes after 5 p.m., returning from the presentation of World Series rings to the members of the 2008 Phillies. Seemingly, there were no hard feelings among Burrell’s teammates, even though his ring came at their expense last October.
The Rays had been prepared to turn to Willie Aybar as the D.H. had Burrell not made it back. That being the case, there is a scenario in which Burrell’s arrival may be the proverbial blessing in disguise, since Aybar is 2-for-6 against Red Sox starter Jon Lester in the regular season, and went 3-for-6 with a key Game 7 homer against him in the ALCS. Here are the regular-season career numbers for the Rays’ lineup against Lester:
Jason Bartlett (8 regular-season plate appearances): .500/.500/.500/1.000
Carl Crawford (15): .214/.267/.286/.553
Evan Longoria (6): .333/.333/.333/.666
Carlos Pena (19): .313/.316/.750/1.066
Pat Burrell (3): .000/.000/.000/.000
Dioner Navarro: .286/.500/.286/.786
Ben Zobrist (2): 1.000/1.000/1.000/2.000
Gabe Kapler (0): n/a
Akinori Iwamura (23): .235/.435/.412/.847
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