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Poll: No active MLB player ranks among Americans’ 50 most favorite athletes

04.05.17 at 4:58 pm ET
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Red Sox outfielders Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. can give baseball some needed star power. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

Red Sox outfielders Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. can give baseball some needed star power. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

MLB’s dwindling national popularity isn’t a new story. But one recent poll shows how far baseball has slipped.

The firm Luker on Trends, which powers ESPN’s Sports Poll, surveyed more than 6,000 American sports fans, aged 12 and older, between November and February. When the respondents were asked to name their favorite athletes, only three baseball players, all of whom are retired, were mentioned often enough to crack the top 50.

Derek Jeter leads the pack at No. 13, despite walking away from the game 2.5 years ago. He’s followed by another Yankees great, Babe Ruth, who passed away in 1948. ESPN’s Jayson Stark, the author of the piece, notes Ruth is the only player on the list who hasn’t played in eight decades. Pete Rose rounds out the group at No. 50, perhaps thanks to his anti-hero status. The all-time hits leader has been suspended from baseball for 28 years.

The first active player to show up on the list is Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo. He clocks in at No. 51. Last year, David Ortiz was the only active MLB player named, landing at No. 23 overall.

In comparison to other professional sports leagues, MLB is lagging in terms of star power. Fifteen active NFL players, six active basketball stars and one active hockey player –– Sidney Crosby –– make the list. International soccer sensations Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are also more popular in the U.S. than anybody currently playing professional baseball.

There are several reasons for this phenomenon, which Stark outlines in the piece. The dynamics of baseball make it impossible for star players to stand out every game, like they do in the NBA or NFL. During the waning moments of an NBA contest, the ball is almost always in the best players’ hands. The same is true in the NFL. But in baseball, the batting order dictates who steps to the plate in crucial situations. Mike Trout and Kris Bryant are often unavailable when their teams need them most.

The 25-year-old Bryant, by all accounts, is a star. He plays third base for the world champion Cubs and won the NL MVP during their first championship season in 108 years. Despite his gaudy statistics, though, he’s also susceptible to uneventful nights where he goes 0-for-2 with two talks. Fans who buy a ticket solely to see Bryant, or any player, will likely walk away disappointed. That’s not the case in the NBA, where LeBron James or Stephen Curry seem to always put on a show.

If the realities of baseball make it difficult to market individual players, the climate of MLB makes it near impossible. While scores of stars in other sports speak out on social issues, baseball players adhere to a culture of silence. Young stars fear breaking one of the game’s antiquated “unwritten rules.”

Today’s consumers are obsessed with superstars. Baseball has none. While MLB can do little about the natural flow of the game, it can try to start changing the environment around big league clubhouses. MLB’s best players must be encouraged to show personality. The game’s popularity largely hinders on it.

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Red Sox lineup: Mookie Betts latest victim of flu, Xander Bogaerts moves up

04.05.17 at 3:11 pm ET
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Mookie Betts (Kim Klement/USA Today Sports)

Mookie Betts (Kim Klement/USA Today Sports)

The Red Sox were able to escape any repercussions Opening Day when it came to the flu that was sweeping through the clubhouse. But they had no such luck in Game 2.

As John Farrell first revealed on the Dale, Holley & Keefe Show, Mookie Betts is the latest victim of the sickness, forcing him out of the Red Sox’ lineup for Wednesday night’s game against the Pirates.

Without Betts, Chris Young will get the start in right field against Pittsburgh starter Jameson Taillon, a right-hander. Xander Bogaerts also moves up to the No. 3 spot in the batting order.

Here is the Red Sox’ lineup with Chris Sale on the mound for the hosts:

Dustin Pedroia 2B
Andrew Benintendi LF
Xander Bogaerts SS
Hanley Ramirez DH
Mitch Moreland 1B
Chris Young RF
Jackie Bradley Jr. CF
Pablo Sandoval 3B
Sandy Leon C

For all the Red Sox news, go to the team page by click here.

Coolest Play of the Week: Andrew Benintendi 3-run homer on Opening Day

04.05.17 at 10:55 am ET
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Each week, we will be picking the F.W. Webb “Coolest Play of the Week.” This week’s highlight is from Opening Day. Andrew Benintendi hit his first home run of the season, a three-run shot in the fifth inning that opened up a 5-0 Red Sox lead over the Pirates. Check out the replay below:

 

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Why in the world are they shifting on Sandy Leon?

04.04.17 at 12:31 pm ET
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Sandy Leon (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

Sandy Leon (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

It was one of the biggest plays of the Red Sox’ season-opening win over the Pirates. A Sandy Leon bunt.

Hitting left-handed with two outs in the fifth inning and Pablo Sandoval at first base, Leon put adeptly placed a 95 mph fastball from Pittsburgh starter Gerrit Cole to a wide open left side of the infield. After Cole wasn’t able to reach the bunt in time, it kept the inning going long enough for a Dustin Pedroia RBI single and Andrew Benintendi three-run home run.

Why would Leon try such a maneuver with two outs? Because the Pirates had put their third baseman in the shortstop position, leaving virtually the entire left side of the diamond vacant.

“I was getting ready to hit and I saw the shift way over to second base. I just wanted to get on base,” he said. “I’ve got Pedey on deck, and I know what he can do. Just playing for the team, just trying to get on base for the team and for Pedey.”

What is going on?

A few years ago, the notion of shifting on the No. 9 hitter in the batting order, a career .187 at this time a year ago, was unheard of. For instance, in 2012 teams shifted on the last batter in the lineup for 118 plate appearances. But 2016? The nine-hole batter saw 1,195 such situations.

Times have certainly changed, as is evident by the amount of times balls were put in play with shifts on last season.

According to Fangraphs, in 2012 there were 4,576 plate appearances with shifts. The next season it was at 6,881. In 2014 the number crept to 13,298, and then 17,737 in ’15. And last season the ploy went to another level, with major leaguers totaling 28,072 PAs with a shift in the mix.

And here’s the thing:with more shifts came less success for the defenders, with batting averages finishing at .299 vs. the maneuver in ’16, the highest since they started tracking such things.

Perhaps Leon represents how crazy it has gotten.

Sure, the spray chart shows that he is primarily a pull-hitter when putting balls on the ground from the left side. But here’s the thing: Nobody in baseball had a better average in 2016 when facing shifts than Leon.

In 83 plate appearances against shifts, Leon managed a .438 batting average. Even the year before, when he was still being classified as a well below-average offensive threat, the switch-hitter had eight hits in 24 at-bats (.333) vs. the strategy.

Then there is the reality that Leon is probably the Red Sox’ best bunter, and executed an identical strategy last Sept. 9 against the Padres — leading to a single, which was followed by a Jackie Bradley Jr. homer.

Maybe shifting will reach a tipping point, thanks in part to the realization that players can do what Leon did Monday. But don’t count on it. Baseball has come to believe it can’t possibly out-think itself.

John Farrell has got his work cut out for him figuring out this Red Sox bullpen

04.03.17 at 7:40 pm ET
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Craig Kimbrel (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

Craig Kimbrel (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

The Red Sox have a good team. Their starting pitchers are certainly good enough, as is their lineup.

There is just that one element that offers an uneasy feeling heading into Opening Day, and hasn’t gone anywhere as Game 2 approaches. That would be the bullpen.

With the last two eighth-inning acquisitions, Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg, each starting the year on the disabled list, and last season’s answer, Koji Uehara, now pitching for the Cubs, the path to Craig Kimbrel has never been murkier. It was a reality that Red Sox manager John Farrell admitted before his team’s 5-3 win over the Pirates Monday, and remains the same.

“Without a returning lock-down eighth inning guy, we’re about settling into some roles as quick as possible,” Farrell said Monday morning. “There’s going to be a little bit more matching up right now before we bridge to Kimbrel in the ninth. You take some of the momentum that certain guys have coming out of spring training with how they are throwing the ball — [Heath] Hembree and [Matt] Barnes from the right-handed side have probably been the most consistent. Robby Scott and Fernando [Abad] from the left side have probably had more momentum coming out of spring training.

“We’ve got to settle into the roles as quick as possible, but that is what we’re looking at to bridge to Kimbrel right now in a lead situation.”

And that’s exactly what happened after Rick Porcello left with two runners on, one out, and the Red Sox holding a four-run lead in the seventh inning.

First came Barnes, who had been particularly effective when coming in with runners on last season. This time around he wasn’t sharp, ultimately getting out of the inning, but only after allowing two inherited runners to score.

“I felt good today. It’s funny, but you take the first outing or two, and it takes you the one, two, three outings to get reacclimated to everything,” Barnes said. “It’s a little different pitching up here in front of these fans in front of big-leaguers for an entire game in a game that matters to the standings as opposed to when you’re pitching down in spring training, it’s a completely different setting. A lot of times later in the games, you’re not facing big-league guys, so it takes, from what I’ve seen, an outing or two to get reacclimated to the setting, to the scene and to everything, and then we’ll be ready to roll.”

In the eighth, Scott was brought on to face lefty Gregory Polanco and needed just one pitch to induce a ground out.

“I got up the inning before and they told me Polanco would be the guy that I had,” the lefty explained. “Barnesy got out of it with Polanco on-deck and they called back and said I would be going back to begin the eighth.”

Hembree was called on to face righties David Freese and Francisco Cervelli, both of whom the right-hander retired to end the eighth. That paved the way for Kimbrel in the ninth. The Red Sox closer did nothing to soothe the nerves of those worrying about the relievers, putting two runners on before getting Starling Marte to pop up to first baseman Mitch Moreland to end the game.

They got through it, but it was a reminder that this, for the time being, is not going to be easy for Farrell.

Up until about a week ago, it appeared as though the manager was going to be able to rely on Joe Kelly to slide into Thornburg’s role. But the righty sputtered through the end of spring training, experiencing control issues, seemingly pushing him behind Barnes and Hembree for that last righty to pitch before Kimbrel.

“We have three lefties, which is huge for us. We have a bunch of righties with all similar stuff. You just have to be ready at any point,” Kelly said. “I feel good. I feel ready to go. It’s just depending on the game situation. It’s just one game.

“I was trying to get all my pitches ready [in spring training]. It wasn’t like I was working on one particular thing. I’m ready to go. I feel great.”

We still haven’t seen Ben Taylor, Robbie Ross Jr. (who also struggled in spring training), Abad or Kelly. So the tryouts for meaningful spots will continue throughout the week. And ultimately Thornburg and Smith will likely return, with Thornburg perhaps reappearing by May, with Smith slated for a month after that.

But until the whole gang gets together, this is going to be a challenge. Both for the seven or eight relievers, and their manager.

“Just trying to get outs,” Ross Jr. said. “We have to do whatever we have to do to get outs. The roles aren’t really determined. We just have to do what we need to do.”

“A lot of guys down there have done a bunch of different roles,” Barnes added. “While there’s not necessarily clarity on who’s got the seventh and who’s got the eighth, everybody is staying on their toes, staying ready, and we’re going from there.”

After winning American League Cy Young in 2016, Rick Porcello picks up right where he left off

04.03.17 at 6:45 pm ET
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It was a solid first start of the year for Rick Porcello (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

It was a solid first start of the year for Rick Porcello (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

After winning the American League Cy Young in 2016, it will to be hard to duplicate the performance again this season, but Rick Porcello got off to a good start in Monday’s 5-3 win over the Pirates on Opening Day at Fenway Park.

Porcello was dominant at home last year, going 13-1 with a 2.97 ERA, and he picked up where he left off on Monday.

The right-hander went 6 1/3 innings, allowing three runs on six hits, while walking one and striking out five to pick up his first win of the year. The outing could have gone even better, as he took a shutout into the seventh inning, but began to labor.

He allowed the first two men to reach before getting a ground out, but couldn’t get out of the inning as he allowed a RBI single to Josh Harrison, which ended his afternoon at 96 pitches. Matt Barnes came on in relief, but allowed both inherited runners to score.

Manager John Farrell could tell Porcello was laboring even in the sixth, but it was in the seventh that it really started to show.

“When we extended the inning in the fifth, it started to take its toll after a long inning,” he said. “You could see the stuff maybe get a little tight going out for the sixth inning. He got through it fine. Any time you’re starting to elevate pitches and his cutter was up-and-in to [Fransisco] Cervelli, those are pitches for fatigue maybe starts to set in.”

Self-admittedly, Porcello didn’t have his best stuff, but was still able to make it past five innings for the 42nd straight start. This is the longest active streak in the American League and second-longest by a Red Sox pitcher since 1913.

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Drew Pomeranz has ‘very encouraging’ day Monday, so what’s next for him?

04.03.17 at 6:08 pm ET
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Drew Pomeranz seems likely to start Sunday in Detroit. (David Richard/USA Today Sports)

Drew Pomeranz seems likely to start Sunday in Detroit. (David Richard/USA Today Sports)

While the Red Sox were opening their season at Fenway Park, an important start took place at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers with Drew Pomeranz starting in a minor league game.

The left-hander has started the year on the 10-day disabled list (retroactive to March 30) with a left forearm flexor strain, but apparently looked good on Monday.

Following the Red Sox’ 5-3 win over the Pirates, manager John Farrell said Pomeranz went six innings and threw around 88-90 pitches.

“There was an uptick in overall stuff, so it was a very encouraging day for him,” Farrell said. “We have yet to discuss what the next step is. For what he set out to do work wise, he was able to accomplish that.”

While not official yet, given the positive outing Monday, it appears likely Pomeranz will be activated off the disabled list to start Sunday (April 9) in Detroit. This was the plan all along and the reason the team carried an extra relief pitcher on the Opening Day roster instead of five starters.

For more Red Sox news, visit weei.com/redsox.

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How are Red Sox going to win without David Ortiz? Their Opening Day win over Pirates offered a hint

04.03.17 at 5:10 pm ET
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Andrew Benintendi (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

Andrew Benintendi (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

You want a blueprint of how the Red Sox plan on winning without David Ortiz? I will refer you to their 5-3 win over the Pirates Monday afternoon at Fenway Park. (For a complete recap of the game, click here.)

Better than average defense. Lock-down starting pitching. A balanced lineup. The utilization of small-ball. Some resurgence from Pablo Sandoval. And the emergence of their next big bat, Andrew Benintendi.

There you go.

We will start with Benintendi considering he owned the biggest hit of the entire Opening Day game. That came in the form of a three-run home run into the Pirates’ bullpen off a 98 mph fastball from Pittsburgh starter Gerrit Cole. (Click here to see a video of the home run.)

While there was some raised eyebrows directed at Red Sox manager John Farrell when he decided to bump Benintendi up to the No. 2 spot in the batting order despite having just 44 major league plate appearances coming into the season. While it did allow to break up the right-handed bats at the top of the order, and lefties in the bottom half, pushing Xander Bogaerts down to No. 6 was hardly a no-brainer.

But Benintendi’s ability to turn on the kind of pitch Cole delivered on a 2-2 count with two outs in the Red Sox’ five-run fifth inning only fed the optimism baseball’s top prospect continued to build throughout a Grapefruit League that saw him hit .344 with a 1.062 OPS.

How the Red Sox got that point, where Benintendi could go deep for the Red Sox’ first homer of 2017, was also a huge part of the story.

With Cole battling Red Sox starter Rick Porcello in a scoreless game with two outs in the fifth, Jackie Bradley Jr. finally got to the Pirates’ starter by narrowly hitting a home run over the right field wall on a 97 mph heater. The sight of Bradley’s triple was an important one, considering any early-season uncertainty over which streak the streaky center fielder would start out on.

Shattering Perceptions Game Note Image

 

Bradley’s triple was the hardest ball he’s ever hit, as he launched the line-drive at 110 mph according to StatCast.

The hit was the second piece of excellence coming from the outfielder, who made a spectacular play chasing down Francisco Cervelli’s fourth-inning blast into the center field triangle.

Then came Sandoval.

The slightly more streamlined third baseman picked up where he left off in spring training, beating out a slow grounder to Pittsburgh shortstop Jordy Nelson. It was a practice Sandoval had executed multiple times in Southwest Florida, but this time it just happened to score the Red Sox’ first run of the season. It was also a happening that probably wouldn’t have been possible with the frame he supported a year ago. (To see Sandoval beating out the grounder, click here.)

The momentum didn’t stop there, thanks to Sandy Leon’s willingness to take what the Pirates gave him when shifting on him. Farrell said his club would be taking advantage of shifts more via the bunt, and that’s exactly what the switch-hitting catcher did. The next thing you knew Dustin Pedroia was claiming an RBI single, paving the way Benintendi.

And, finally, I give you Porcello.

It might not have felt like the dominating performance you might get from a pitcher making his first start since winning the Cy Young, but it was want any team would have wanted from their Opening Day starter. Six and a third innings. Three runs. Six hits. Five strikeouts. One walk.

It wasn’t all perfect. Matt Barnes came on for Porcello and didn’t ease any previous concerns the Red Sox might have had coming into the day, allowing two inherited runs to score via walk, hit and sacrifice fly. But it was good enough. And considering the unknown that is life without Ortiz, that will have to do for now.

Photos: Red Sox Opening Day pregame ceremonies

04.03.17 at 3:21 pm ET
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The Red Sox opened the season Monday afternoon at Fenway Park. Pregame ceremonies featured Robert Kraft, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, James White, Dion Lewis and the Patriots’ five Lombardi Trophies. Check out some photos here.

Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski (WEEI)

Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski (WEEI)

David Ortiz isn’t at Fenway Park for Opening Day, but is on Twitter

04.03.17 at 2:21 pm ET
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The Opening Day celebration at Fenway Park went on without the presence of David Ortiz.

Despite some surmising the former designated hitter might be part of the Game 1 festivities, the Red Sox instead rolled out a Patriots-themed pregame ceremony. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, James White, Dion Lewis and Robert Kraft walked in from the left field wall with their Lombardi Trophies, leading up to Brady throwing out the first pitch.

But Ortiz did make his presence felt in the moments leading up to Rick Porcello’s initial offering, taking to Twitter.

(To read/watch Ortiz’s tweet, click here.)

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