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Former MLB journeyman Darren Bragg reminisces about time with Red Sox 06.03.13 at 12:30 pm ET
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Connecticut native Darren Bragg hit .264 with 20 home runs and 136 RBIs in 2 1/2 seasons with the Red Sox in the late 1990s, part of his 11-year major league career. (AP)

In a Saturday afternoon game at Fenway Park on Aug. 24, 1996, with the shadows slowing creeping their way around the batter’s box, lefty-hitting Red Sox outfielder Darren Bragg was set to face one of the most intimidating left-handed flamethrowers the game of baseball has ever seen.

It was a matchup that almost seemed unfair. Randy Johnson, aka the “Big Unit,” standing 6-foot-10, was ahead in the count 1-2 against the 5-foot-9 Bragg. With the Sox leading the Mariners 5-4 in the bottom of the sixth, Johnson left his next pitch out over the plate, and Bragg took Johnson deep for a grand slam, which led the home team to a 9-5 win. This clutch hit — one his 46 career home runs — was without a doubt one of the defining moments of Bragg’s career.

Bragg spent 2½ of his 11 seasons with the Red Sox, and arguably had his most success with them. A product of Taft High School in Watertown, Conn., Bragg went on to play at Georgia Tech and was drafted by the Mariners in the 22nd round in 1991. He made his major league debut with Seattle on April 12, 1994. After receiving limited playing time in Seattle, Bragg was traded to Boston on July 30, 1996, in exchange for Jamie Moyer. He stayed with Boston through the 1998 season, and of the nine teams he played for, Bragg had the most total at-bats, hits, home runs and RBIs with the Sox.

“Boston was special for me, being a Connecticut kid, growing up within that Yankees-Red Sox rivalry,” Bragg said last month. “My grandfather was a big Red Sox fan and my dad was a big Yankees fan, so that’s all we did was talk about baseball and the Yankees and Red Sox all the time.

“It was a lot of fun walking out in the tunnel, knowing that guys like Yaz [Carl Yastrzemski] and Ted Williams all walked that same path to the dugout to looking at the Green Monster as you look out the home-side dugout. So I definitely thought about that all the time. I considered myself very fortunate to be able to do that.”

When Bragg was acquired by the Sox in late July of ’96, the team was struggling mightily at 46-58 and out of the playoff picture. In 58 games for Boston that season, Bragg hit .252/.357/.365 with three home runs and 22 RBIs and helped the Sox finish strong at 85-77 , seven games behind the first-place Yankees and three games behind the wild card-winning Orioles. With that late-August victory over the Mariners, the team reached the .500 mark for just the second time that season and would not fall below that mark the rest of the way.

In his career, Bragg took both Johnson and Greg Maddux deep, an achievement not many players can claim. The long ball off of Johnson was extra special, though, provided the atmosphere, time of year and what it meant to the team’s season. It was the first home run Johnson surrendered to a lefty hitter in four years.

“It was definitely a thrill,” Bragg said. “It was one of the greatest thrills I had, being able to do that, hit a grand slam off him at Fenway Park. It was during the day, a day game, it was perfect.”

“It’s funny because if I think back to that at-bat, I could tell you that he threw me a pitch before I hit that grand slam [where] I could barely see the ball. I was like, ‘Whoa, that was scary.’ I had some doubt, cleared the doubt, went back into the batter’s box, and he hung me a slider and I was able to get the good part of the bat on it.”

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Saturday’s Red Sox-Rangers matchups: John Lackey vs. Alexi Ogando 05.04.13 at 10:26 am ET
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John Lackey

The Red Sox take on the Rangers on Saturday night, and John Lackey will look to build off of a strong outing in what was his first full, injury-free game of 2013, as he picked up his first win since Aug. 23, 2011. Lackey will be opposed by former reliever Alexi Ogando.

Lackey will make his third start of the season, coming in at 1-1 with a 2.61 ERA. After what looked like a promising season debut on April 6, the big right-hander suffered a strained right biceps injury and did not make a start until 22 days later. In Sunday’s start against the Astros, Lackey went six innings, allowing only a first-inning run and five hits total. He walked two and struck out four.

“I thought the ball got out of his hand better than expected,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “Not only in terms of velocity, but in the action to which some of his pitches showed at the bottom of the strike zone — whether it was a two-seamer to get a number of ground balls, he had a good cutter, consistent sharpness to his curveball, as we saw in Toronto in his first outing. Honestly, it was better than expected in most ways.”

Lackey has struggled mightily against the Rangers in his career, posting a 12-14 record with a monstrous 6.16 ERA. In 195 2/3 total innings against the team, he has 171 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, Ogando enters Saturday’s start at 2-2 with a 3.38 ERA. He has a 1.25 WHIP and has struck out 27 in 32 innings of work. The first half of April was much kinder to Ogando, as he began the year 2-0 while only allowing two earned runs in his first three starts. In his last three, though, he is 0-2 and has given up 10 earned runs in just 15 1/3 innings. Since striking out 10 hitters in his season debut, he has not surpassed five in that department.

In Sunday’s start, Ogando went six innings, allowing three runs on four hits, including a big two-run home run to Twins slugger Justin Morneau in the sixth. The Rangers lost that game, 5-0.

“Really, Alexi made one mistake,” Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski said after that game. “He threw a slider up, and Morneau didn’t miss it. … You feel bad when a guy like Derek [Holland] yesterday comes out and gives us a chance early, and today we really didn’t have a lot of scoring opportunities.”

Ogando is 1-2 with a 5.11 ERA in 12 1/3 career inning vs. the Red Sox. In his only career start against them, Ogando surrendered four home runs and six runs total in four innings of work back in 2011.

A handful of Rangers hitters have a large sample size of experience vs. Lackey, mostly from his days with the Angels. Of them, Ian Kinsler has hit him the best, batting .438 with three home runs and eight RBIs. The same amount of experience can not be said for the Sox, as no current hitter has faced Ogando more than five times.

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Friday’s Red Sox-Rangers matchups: Felix Doubront vs. Derek Holland 05.03.13 at 2:25 pm ET
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Felix Doubront

The Red Sox and Rangers open an intriguing series on Friday, one that features two of the top teams in the league in the season’s first month. The opener will pit two young left-handers in Felix Doubront and Derek Holland.

Doubront enters at 3-0 with a 4.24 ERA. In 23 1/3 innings in April, Doubront allowed 20 hits, 13 walks and one home run while racking up an impressive 29 strikeouts. The Venezuela native has picked up the victory in each of his last three starts, while punching out eight in his last two.

He is coming off of a 6 2/3-inning effort, scattering four hits, three runs and four walks, in an 8-4 win over the Astros. Three of those walks came in a shaky two-run first frame, but Doubront settled in nicely after that.

“After the first inning, I was really focused and in the strike zone,” Doubront said. “I wasn’t thinking about my mechanics at all. Just throw the ball and get quick outs to go deep in the game. I was so proud that I did that. I flipped the switch after the first inning and I got the W.”

Doubront is 0-2 with a 10.32 ERA in 11 1/3 career innings against the Rangers. In his only 2012 start against the team, Doubront was roughed up for six earned runs in five innings and picked up the loss.

Holland is 1-2 with a 3.38 ERA. He has hurled 34 2/3 innings, allowing 24 hits, nine walks and two home runs while striking out 28. In his most recent outing, Holland was strong, but no run support cost him a chance at his second win. On Saturday, the lefty gave up three earned runs on five hits in seven innings of work as the Rangers were defeated by the Twins, 7-2.

“He’s been pitching and throwing the ball well,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “The results aren’t there, but he’s been throwing the ball well.”

Holland has had success against the Sox in his career, going 4-1 with a 3.00 ERA. In 33 innings, he has struck out 28.

Rangers hitters have had limited experience against Doubront, but Ian Kinsler has the most success. The second baseman is 3-for-5 with a double and two RBIs vs. Doubront in his career. Dustin Pedroia has struggled a bit vs. Holland, hitting just .143, but he does have one career home run vs. him.

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Wednesday’s Red Sox-Blue Jays matchups: Clay Buchholz vs. Mark Buehrle 05.01.13 at 10:05 am ET
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Clay Buchholz

Both the Red Sox and Clay Buchholz had a tremendous April, better than anyone could have imagined. The right-hander is off to the best start of his career and certainly is an early Cy Young candidate. Buchholz will face off against a struggling Mark Buehrle in the middle game of the Red Sox-Blue Jays series.

Across the board, Buchholz’ numbers are terrific. He is 5-0 with a 1.19 ERA. He has gone at least seven innings in all five of his starts, and all of them have been quality starts. In 37 2/3 innings, he has given up just 25 hits, one home run and 13 walks, while punching out 39 hitters. Buchholz is coming off of a 7 2/3-inning effort against Houston in which he allowed two runs on six hits and struck out 10.

“When he’s able to start commanding the zone and things like that later in the game, that’s when you can see why he’s as good as he is,” Astros catcher Jason Castro said after that game. “He can pretty much throw any of his pitches at you at any time and never really seems to throw the same pitch twice, back-to-back, and that makes it harder to get a feel on him.”

Buchholz had three very good starts vs. the Blue Jays in 2012, going at least seven innings and allowing no more than four runs in each start.

One of Toronto’s offseason acquisitions, Buehrle will look to turn around what has been both a team and personal underperforming season. The former White Sox and Marlins starter is 1-1 with a 6.35 ERA and has given up 37 hits and six home runs in just 28 1/3 innings of work.

On Thursday vs. the Yankees, Buehrle allowed five runs on seven hits, including three home runs, in a 5-3 defeat. One of the dingers was hit by Robinson Cano, a three-run shot in the third inning.

“Went fastball in, got in, and he hit it out,” Buehrle said. “He’s a great hitter, and I think that’s why this game is kind of frustrating at times. You make pitches and they get hits.”

Adam Lind has had good success against Buchholz, with two home runs and four RBIs while sporting a .314 batting average in 35 career at-bats. For the Sox, David Ortiz is hitting .361 with three home runs and 13 RBIs against Buehrle in 61 career at-bats.

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Tuesday’s Red Sox-Blue Jays matchups: Jon Lester vs. Brandon Morrow 04.30.13 at 11:27 am ET
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Jon Lester

Jon Lester will look to close out his terrific month of April by joining Clay Buchholz as a member of the five-win club. Lester will face off against Brandon Morrow on Tuesday night as the Red Sox and Blue Jays open up a three-game series in Toronto.

Lester and Buchholz are a combined 9-0 and both have ERAs under 3.00, which is one of the primary reasons for the team’s 18-7 record, the best in baseball. Lester is 4-0 with a 2.27 ERA, striking out 28 in 31 2/3 innings. He allowed his first home run of the year in his most recent start, and has allowed 25 hits and 10 walks, equating to a 1.11 WHIP.

In his most recent outing, Lester had his first tough start, but he still was able to pick up the victory. On Wednesday, the left-hander went 5 2/3 innings, allowed three runs on six hits, walked a season-high six batters and struck out five in the Sox’ 6-5 win over the A’s. This is the first season in his career in which Lester has four victories in April.

“I wouldn’t say I didn’t have good stuff,” Lester said after his last start. “I thought I had good stuff. Early on, it was a little bit of a battle, a lot of foul balls. It was big to get a win right there. The offense picked me up, coming back after that three-run inning to score three and tie it up. They kept doing a good job later after that to score some more runs.”

At the start of the season, many baseball analysts and experts had the Sox and Jays in opposition positions from which they currently sit. While the Sox lead the AL East at 18-7, the Jays are in the cellar, at a disappointing 9-17. Morrow will look to end a couple of streaks on Tuesday night, as Toronto has lost four straight and the 0-2 righty will look for his victory of the season.

In five starts, Morrow has hurled 27 1/3 innings, allowed 33 hits, four home runs and nine walks, with 19 strikeouts. His ERA is a robust 5.27. In his Wednesday start against Baltimore, he allowed three runs in 6 1/3 innings and got a no-decision.

Lester has had considerable success against the Jays in his career, going 12-7 with a 3.67 ERA in 144 2/3 innings. Adam Lind has struggled in particular vs. the two-time All-Star, going 3-for-27 with 10 strikeouts in his career. On the other hand, Morrow has been lit up by the Sox, posting a 1-3 record with an 8.28 ERA in his career against the division rival. Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz are a combined 24-for-52 (.462) with seven home runs and 18 RBIs against Morrow.

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Saturday’s Red Sox-Astros matchups: Felix Doubront vs. Brad Peacock 04.27.13 at 9:05 am ET
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Felix Doubront

Saturday night’s Red Sox-Astros game will feature two 25-year-old starting pitchers in Felix Doubront and Brad Peacock.

Doubront is coming off of his most durable performance of the year, going 6 2/3 innings in a 9-6 win over the A’s on Monday. He surrendered three runs on three hits, walked five and struck out eight in his third start. This was the first time in 2013 when the left-hander went more than five innings. With the victory, he improved to 2-0 and lowered his ERA to 4.32.

“I feel good,” Doubront said after the game. “I was throwing the ball real good. My arm feels a lot easier throwing the ball.”

The Astros, new to the American League and making their first visit to Fenway Park since 2003, are an unfamiliar opponent for Doubront. Only two hitters in the almost unrecognizable Astros lineup have ever faced Doubront: Carlos Pena and Chris Carter are a combined 1-for-11 against him.

Peacock is 1-2 on the season, sporting a hefty 7.50 ERA. In four games started and 18 innings, he has given up 20 hits, six home runs and eight walks, with 15 strikeouts. He is part of a staff that is among the worst in the league in terms of team ERA.

His most recent outing was his worst thus far. Against Seattle, Peacock only got through 4 1/3 innings, allowing a season-high nine hits and seven runs while walking one and striking out a season-low one batter. The Astros’ bullpen has been busy in Peacock’s four starts as he has only gotten through five innings once.

“Too many deep counts,” Astros manager Bo Porter said. “That’s something that Brad is going to have to work on. When you find yourselves in deep counts, your pitch count is going to spike real high. And when you have a lot of deep counts, hitters are hitting in good hitter’s counts. The more times hitters hit in good hitter’s counts, they’re normally going to put their better swings on pitches.”

Shane Victorino is the only Sox hitter to have faced Peacock, going 0-for-3 in his career.

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Larry Lucchino on D&C: Red Sox’ success ‘an early vindication’ of front office’s offseason approach 04.25.13 at 10:53 am ET
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Larry Lucchino

Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino checked in with Dennis & Callahan on Thursday to discuss Saturday’s emotional pregame ceremony at Fenway Park, the possible closer controversy that lies ahead, and many more important topics from early in the season.

The Sox sit atop the American League East at 14-7, and one of the most memorable victories was on Saturday against the Royals. In that contest, Daniel Nava hit a game-winning home run in the eighth, hours after the ceremony honoring the victims and heroes of the Boston Marathon bombings and manhunt.

“We talk a lot about the importance of Fenway Park as a community meeting place and the importance of a baseball team in bringing a community together, a sense of unity and connection and connectedness,” Lucchino said. “All of that came together last Saturday in a beautifully orchestrated event. I call it a ceremony because I think it was a celebration of those who passed away — at least a recognition of them, a moment when people could remember them and also celebrate the first responders and the action that we all took so much pride in last Thursday and Friday.”

The Sox front office and management focused this past offseason on bringing in good clubhouse players, but also ones who could perform in Boston. This was a sharp contrast to a year earlier, when they brought in highly touted stars Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford who turned out to be awkward fits in Boston.

“It is in some sense an early victory, an early vindication of all of that approach,” Lucchino said. “Just as I said to you guys before, we were never trying to get the coolest guys in the class to form a fraternity in the clubhouse. What we were trying to do is get good teammates who could perform in the crucible that is Boston and make this team likable but also good. Talent is always a part of it. But Ben Cherington and his staff made a concerted effort to consider the personalities — there should be a noun for teamsmanship — the kind of people we were getting. That’s proven to be at least part of the very successful start.”

There have been a number of factors in the team’s early season success. The offense has been led by new acquisitions Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino, new manager John Farrell seems to be succeeding greatly in his return to Boston, and David Ortiz is back and playing well. Lucchino, though, said that the pitchers’ success has been the key.

“For me, it starts with pitching,” Lucchino said. “The key to this team this year was going to be pitching. We knew we had a bulked-up bullpen. We knew we had some depth and some talent in that bullpen, and of course that’s one of the keys to winning baseball in the modern era. … But the revival of the starting rotation is really I think probably [the] most important factor among those that you cited — the leadership that they provide, the sense of momentum that they provide when they take the field and just the quality of their stuff. The stuff may not be contagious, but the winning is contagious and the example that they set at the top of the rotation is contagious, and baseball is, after all, a game about pitching.”

Since Joel Hanrahan‘s hamstring injury, Andrew Bailey has stepped into the closer’s role and pitched very well. With Hanrahan due to come off the disabled list soon, a closer controversy may await the Red Sox.

“I think that there will be a controversy, yes,” Lucchino said. “I think the fans and the media will be fascinated by this question. But as I just said a minute ago, without you posing the question, is that it’s not such a bad thing to have a couple of closers. Hanrahan goes down and Bailey is ready to step in without missing a beat.”

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