Red Sox Spring Training Wrap-Up (3/28-3/30): Losing Streak Ends, Sox Finalize Roster

Brush off your faded blue hat with the stylized, red “B” on it. Iron your 2004 World Series commemorative jersey. Start re-learning “Sweet Caroline,” “Dirty Water” and “Tessie.” Spring Training is finally over. Opening Day arrives Friday.

But before the Red Sox could kick off the regular season, they had to make their final roster moves, specifically in the bullpen. The team announced Monday morning that Alfredo Aceves and 2007 All-Star Hideki Okajima would start the season in Triple-A Pawtucket. In 13.1 Spring Training innings, Aceves was 0-1 with a 4.05 ERA. Okajima was 0-0 with a 5.14 ERA in 7.0 innings.

The moves meant that the final two bullpen spots would go to Dennys Reyes and Matt Albers. Reyes was 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 10 preseason innings. Albers went 0-0 with a 2.63 ERA in 13.2.

Red Sox 3, Blue Jays 2 (8)

The Red Sox wasted no time in snapping the 10-game losing streak they had been mired in since over a week ago. With the major league rotation getting hammered all of last week, and with John Lackey left behind due to the threat of rain, Terry Francona opted to use four minor league pitchers Monday afternoon against the Toronto Blue Jays. Tony Pena Jr. started and went three innings, giving up a run on two hits and a strikeout.

Eammon Portice gave up another run in the fourth inning, and the Red Sox went into the seventh inning down 2-1. But after Nate Spears (2-3, stolen base) reached on an infield single, rookie right fielder Jeremy Hazelbaker homered to right for the 3-2 lead.

The rain did come, shortening the game to eight innings. Seth Garrison picked up the win, giving up just two hits while striking out two in two scoreless innings.

The Red Sox tied the game 1-1 in the third when designated hitter Mike Cameron (1-4) drove in center fielder Peter Hissey with a single to deep shortstop.

Dustin Pedroia (double) and Adrian Gonzalez, two of only four major leaguers (the other two being Cameron and Jed Lowrie, who went 0-3) to make the trip to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Fla., each went 1-3.

Red Sox 1, Rays 1

Adrian Gonzalez connects on his second homer of the Grapefruit League season. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays each got four strong innings out of their starters in Tuesday’s game, finished the ninth tied 1-1, and called it a day. For the Red Sox, Clay Buchholz gave up just a run on a hit and two walks while striking out three.

The bullpen, which featured major league pitchers Albers, Dan Wheeler and Tim Wakefield, combined for five scoreless innings. Wheeler threw a perfect seventh and Wakefield gave up just a hit in two innings.

The Red Sox were down 1-0 in the bottom of the fourth when Gonzalez homered off Rays starter Wade Davis to tie the game.

The Red Sox out-hit the Rays 7-4. J.D. Drew went 2-3 with a double. Cameron, Pedroia, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Marco Scutaro also all collected hits.

Tuesday’s game was likely the final game to be played at City of Palms Park.

Red Sox 10, Astros 0

With Friday’s opening series in Arlington looming, the Red Sox ended their Spring Training with a night game Wednesday against the Houston Astros. And what an end it was. The Red Sox scored five runs in the top of the first, and Josh Beckett pitched his best game so far, giving up just one hit over five innings. He struck out three batters and earned his only win of the preseason.

Boston’s bullpen was equally impressive, limiting the Astros to just three hits over the final four innings while striking out three of their own. Jonathan Papelbon needed just five pitches (all strikes) in his perfect eighth inning.

At the plate, Red Sox hitters banged out 12 hits and drew five walks against Astros pitching.

The offense showed exactly what it could do with a healthy lineup. Jacoby Ellsbury led off the game with an infield single, then promptly stole second (he seems to be running at full speed). After a Pedroia walk, Carl Crawford drove in Ellsbury with a single up the middle, and Gonzalez followed suit with an RBI single of his own to left. Drew walked with the bases loaded to make it 3-0, then Saltalamacchia drove in both Crawford and David Ortiz with a single to center.

The Red Sox batted around the lineup in the first and finished up 5-0. The Red Sox added three more runs in the top of the fourth on an Ellsbury double and a Crawford single.

Ellsbury (one RBI, two runs) and Saltalamacchia (two RBIs, one run) both finished the game with three hits. Crawford (one run, two RBIs) and Gonzalez (one run, one RBI) each had two.

In the ninth, catching prospect Dan Butler hit a towering home run to left that bounced off the train tracks lining Minute Maid Park.

Wrapping up the Wrap-Ups

While the Red Sox’s 14-19-2 overall record is nothing special, Red Sox fans should be generally excited about the upcoming season. Returning players such as Pedroia (.305 average, eight extra-base hits) and Ellsbury (.355 average, seven extra-base hits, including three home runs) have clearly recovered from the injuries that derailed both themselves and the Red Sox last season.

Most of the new players seem to have come as-promised. Gonzalez (.323, two home runs in just 11 games) seems ready to go, as do Reyes and Bobby Jenks (2.57 ERA, and that was mostly because of one bad outing). Crawford still has something to prove, but he has at least shown sparks.

The most pleasant surprise has definitely been the catchers. Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek batted a combined .333 with 11 RBIs and nine extra-base hits. What was once considered the biggest offensive deficiency in the lineup now appears to be at the very worst productive, if not dominant.

Fans should not worry about the offense. They showed Wednesday what they are capable of. The pitching rotation, however, is a little more anxiety-inducing. While three of the starters finished Spring Training with ERAs under 4.00 (of them, John Lackey seems most poised to make a jump this season), Beckett (5.33) had his worst preseason since joining the Red Sox.

In his second-most innings (25.1) since 2005, Beckett gave up the most earned runs (15) and home runs (three), and tied for hits (28) and hit batsmen (four). His performance against the Astros showed he can still dominate, it’s just a question of will he, and how consistently.

The biggest question for the Red Sox will be what to do with Wakefield. Limited to just 11.2 innings this Spring Training, Wakefield still gave up eight earned runs on 17 hits. Five of those hits were home runs. Wakefield has yet to regain the command of his knuckleball he had before the 2010 All-Star Break, and that makes him risky to use in any situation other than blowouts. But without more innings, Wakefield will likely never regain the command needed to pitch in tighter situations. It’s a classic catch-22.

Wakefield can’t be sent to the minor leagues, which leaves him basically taking up a roster spot in the bullpen that could probably be used more productively (such as bringing up rehabbing lefty Felix Doubront). Wakefield has been the elder statesmen of the Red Sox. In what will be his 17th and final year with the team, he deserves to ride off honorably into the sunset. But unless he opts to retire early, he may more likely ride off via the waiver wire.

Whatever happens, it all starts Friday.

Celtics Blow 25-Point Lead to Timberwolves, Hang on in Minnesota

Kevin Garnett shoots against Martell Webster #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during Sunday's game in Minneapolis. (Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Boston Celtics are a cruel bunch of dudes. First, they quickly built a lead against the Minnesota Timberwolves so huge that it silenced the Target Center and sent fans scurrying to their phones for updates on the Twins. Then, they proceeded to blow that very lead, even giving the last-place Timberwolves the lead for a few possessions here and there. Suddenly, the crowd actually believed they were going to witness something spectacular.

But just when Timberwolves fans were allowing themselves the briefest glimmers of hope, the Big Three scored six points in the final minute of the game, sealing the 85-82 Celtics victory.

All of this against a Timberwolves squad missing power forward Kevin Love, theist most dynamic player. Way to kick a team when they’re down… jerks.

First Quarter Dominance

The Celtics could only have played such a cruel joke on the Timberwolves and their fans by out-scoring Minnesota 32-13 in the first quarter. Delonte West, starting in place of the injured Rajon Rondo (right pinky injury), began the game by hitting two jump-shots from beyond 20 feet for the 5-2 Celtics lead.

The Timberwolves tied it up 5-5, but the Celtics responded with a 17-0 run that involved every Celtic starter. First, Nenad Krstic backed down Timberwolves power forward Anthony Randolph for the basket and a foul. Then, Kevin Garnett stole the ball and hit West on the fast break. West pushed it up the court, faked a drive inside long enough to draw in the defenders, then found the trailing Ray Allen for the easy trey.

Krstic followed up Allen’s three-pointer with a five-footer, then Paul Pierce scored three points. West then hit Garnett twice: the first pass Garnett finger-rolled in, the second (off a Timberwolves throw-away, which West grabbed) he dunked for a 22-5 Celtics lead.

The Timberwolves, meanwhile, could not hit a shot no matter how open they were. In the paint, beyond the arc, from the key, it didn’t matter. They shot 24 percent from the field, and after one quarter, things looked as bleak as Minneapolis in mid-winter.

Middle-Game Madness

The Celtics shot just 33 percent in the second and third quarter, blowing what at one point in the second was a 25-point lead. And with every bad shot they took, the Timberwolves became more confident, more aggressive. Minnesota blocked 10 Boston shots in Sunday’s game, and out-rebounded the Celtics 49-42. They grabbed 17 offensive rebounds.

Every time there was a loose ball or bad rebound, there would be two or three Timberwolves scrambling for it. The Timberwolves were led by power forward Michael Beasley (28 points, 10 rebounds) and starting and reserve centers Darko Milicic (15 points, nine rebounds) and Anthony Tolliver (16 points, 15 rebounds, four blocks).

The Timberwolves’s performance was beyond out-of-character. Beasley has always been known as a defensive liability, but he came up with a steal and three blocks. Milicic has always been known as the most overrated player of all time, but he shot 60 percent Sunday while scrambling for every 50-50 ball, successfully using his body to box-out Celtics centers and power forwards.

The Timberwolves outscored the Celtics 30-28 in the paint.

There was one period in the third where it looked as if the Celtics would reassert themselves. Krstic and Pierce combined to dunk three consecutive possessions for a six-point mini-run that pushed the Celtics lead back to 14 at 55-41. But the Timberwolves responded with a 13-0 run to climb right back into the game.

The Celtics lead was down to 13 at halftime, and just two after three. And that two-point lead was only possible because Carlos Arroyo drew a lucky foul as time expired and drained both free-throws. They were Arroyo’s only two points of the game.

Paul Pierce’s Fourth-Quarter Magic

After Milicic gave the Timberwolves a 70-68 lead – Minnesota’s first lead of the game – with just over eight minutes left in the fourth, Pierce took it upon himself to will the Celtics to victory, scoring 12 points in the fourth quarter. He drained a three-pointer off a Garnett offensive rebound to reclaim the lead, then retook the lead again on a classic driving layup that got him to the foul line for the three-point play. A 20-foot jumper with 2:58 left in the game extended the Celtics lead to 77-73.

Pierce later drained two free-throws after West grabbed a key offensive rebound with 28 seconds left in the game. Now down 83-78, Minnesota called timeout and advanced the ball to mid-court. But Pierce’s strong defense on the inbound pass forced Beasley to throw it away, and Glen Davis grabbed it.

Davis missed his two free-throw attempts, but Garnett’s offensive rebound put Allen on the free-throw line. Allen sank them both for the 85-78 lead.

Of the Celtics 21 fourth-quarter points, only two were scored by anyone other than the Big Three. Pierce finished the game with a team-high 23 points to go with his seven rebounds, Garnett finished the game with 13 points and 13 rebounds, for his 25th double-double this season. Allen and Krstic each chipped in with 11.

In an adequate spot-start, West scored eight points with three rebounds, five assists and two steals. He only turned the ball over once while leading a squad that still won the assists battle, 18-16.

On the bench, Davis scored eight points and grabbed six boards while playing 35 minutes. In the third, he showed good poise by recovering his own shot after Tolliver blocked it, then finding Jeff Green (nine points of on 4-5 shooting) in the corner for an open three-pointer with the shot-clock winding down for a 60-54 Celtics lead.

On the Celtics’ next possession, Davis made a nice spin move along the baseline before laying it in.

Red Sox Spring Training Wrap-Up (3/21-3/27): Sox Lose Mayor’s Cup, On 10-Game Losing Streak

Hey there, Sox fans! Goose’s Gabs brings you the final full week of Boston Red Sox Spring Training games, as player and fan alike eagerly await Friday’s Opening Day!

The Red Sox made several roster moves this week, leaving their roster at 32 players. On Friday, the Red Sox reassigned four players to minor league camp and optioned Scott Atchison and Ryan Kalish to Triple-A Pawtucket. In 8.1 preseason innings, Atchison had a 6.48 ERA. Kalish batted .235 in 51 at-bats, but led the team with five steals.

On Saturday, the Red Sox purchased the contract of journeyman reliever Dennys Reyes, adding him to the 40-man roster. Reyes is 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA this Spring Training. He has eight strikeouts in nine innings. The purchase means Reyes is guaranteed his $900,000 salary this year.

Josh Reddick was sent to Pawtucket on Sunday.

Now then, let’s talk about the games themselves. Be warned: it ain’t pretty.

Phillies 4, Boston 1

Since being named Opening Day starter, Jon Lester has not been the same pitcher. Before the announcement, Lester did not allow a run. In the two starts since, including Monday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Lester has allowed seven. He has a 5.81 ERA in his last two starts.

Lester did not allow a hit until two outs into the fifth inning, but left with two outs gone in the sixth after six straight Phillies had reached base and scored three times. Lester only allowed six hits – none for extra bases – but still took the loss, giving up four runs (three earned) on six hits, four walks and six strikeouts.

Matt Albers, still fighting for a spot in the bullpen, struck out three in 1 2/3 perfect innings.

The Red Sox could do little with Phillies ace Roy Halladay, who went 7 2/3, giving up an earned run on five hits, a walk and six strikeouts. The Red Sox tied the game 1-1 in the fifth when non-roster first baseman Drew Sutton drove in Jed Lowrie (1-2, double, run scored, walk) with a sacrifice fly.

Rays 7, Red Sox 4

Continuing through the recently-established pitching rotation, no. 2 John Lackey started Tuesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Unfortunately, Lackey fared no better than Lester. In 5 1/3 innings, Lackey gave up five earned runs on six hits (two home runs), two walks and four strikeouts.

The Rays scored in six different innings Tuesday, making it very difficult for the Red Sox to ever cut into the Rays lead. They were down 2-0 after two innings, 3-1 after three, and 6-1 after seven.

Making it even harder was Rays starter David Price, who allowed just an earned run on five hits, two walks and seven strikeouts in 6 1/3.

The Red Sox tried to get back in the game when minor league first baseman Aaron Bates hit a three-run home run to make it 6-4 in the eighth. But the Rays scored again in the top of the ninth for the 7-4 lead.

Jason Varitek and Dustin Pedroia both went 2-3. Both of Pedroia’s hits were doubles.

Gonzalez DH’s in Minor League Game Wednesday

With the Red Sox off Wednesday, Adrian Gonzalez played designated hitter in a minor league game against a Florida Marlins affiliate. Gonzalez went 3-6 with an RBI and a run. He made solid contact in all six at-bats, including a deep single that likely would have clanged off the Green Monster at Fenway.

Gonzalez returned to the Major League lineup Friday night against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Marlins 15, Red Sox 7

Jarrod Saltalamacchia hits a home run in the second inning of Thursday's game against the Florida Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

The Red Sox rotation was further rocked Thursday against the Florida Marlins, as the Red Sox losing streak extended to over a week. This time, the victim was Clay Buchholz, who gave up 11 runs (six earned) in just four innings of work. He allowed four homers, including two three-run shots to Marlins right fielder Mike Stanton, who finished the game with seven RBIs.

The Red Sox generated an offensive explosion of their own off Marlins starter Javier Vazquez (W, 4 IP, 6 ER, 8 H, 4 K). Jarrod Saltalamacchia went 3-3 with a home run (his first of Spring Training), two doubles, four RBIs and a run. Jacoby Ellsbury went 2-3 with a home run, two RBIs and a run. Sutton went 2-4 with a double and two runs-scored, and Lowrie went 2-3 with a run scored.

The Red Sox were in it through three innings, and began the bottom of the fourth tied 5-5. But a six-run fourth inning made it 11-5 Florida, and the Red Sox could only score two more runs all game.

In separate minor league starts, Tim Wakefield (Triple-A, five innings) and Jonathan Papelbon (Double-A, one inning) gave up six (five earned) and two runs, respectively.

Blue Jays 11, Red Sox 8

The Red Sox are in free fall. The starting rotation has already allowed 14 earned runs. Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays, starter Josh Beckett allowed seven more. In six innings, Beckett gave up seven earned runs on 11 hits (one home run) and five strikeouts. In no inning did Beckett retire the first batter he faced.

Despite Beckett’s poor performance (yet again), the Red Sox actually began the seventh inning down just 6-5. But Reyes struggled in relief of Beckett, giving up three runs (two earned) on two hits (one home run) and a walk.

At least it was a strong day for Red Sox hitters, who banged out 17 hits against Blue Jays pitching. Carl Crawford, Gonzalez, David Ortiz, J.D. Drew and Varitek each had two hits. Gonzalez, Ortiz and Varitek all doubled, and Drew scored two runs.

Papelbon pitched a scoreless ninth, giving up a hit and striking out two.

Twins 9, Red Sox 8

It’s rare to find the words “stopper” and Daisuke Matsuzaka in the same sentence, but that’s almost what happened Saturday against the Minnesota Twins. Matsuzaka had the best start of any Red Sox starter in over a week, giving up just a run in six innings. He gave up five hits and a walk while striking out five, and he left with the Red Sox up 8-1.

Unfortunately, reliever Bobby Jenks picked a terrible time to give up the first runs of his Spring Training. The Twins scored six times in the top of the ninth to take a 9-8 lead. Only two of those runs were earned, as the Red Sox committed three errors during the game, including one in the ninth.

At the plate, Saltalamacchia continued his offensive production, going 2-4 with a double and a run. Darnell McDonald, back from a thumb injury earlier in the week, went 2-3 with a bases-loaded triple that drove in three in the second. Gonzalez went 2-3 with his first home run of the preseason.

Jenks’s ninth-inning meltdown cost the Red Sox the Mayor’s Cup. For those unfamiliar with it, the Mayor’s Cup, so-called because both teams play in Fort Myers, Fla., is awarded to the winner of the Twins-Red Sox preseason series. It’s like the World Series trophy, only nobody cares.

Orioles 4, Red Sox 3

The Red Sox wrapped up their week with a Sunday-afternoon showdown with the Baltimore Orioles. Wanting to keep the rotation aligned and rested for Opening Day, Terry Francona used relief pitchers for all nine innings. Brandon Duckworth started and went two innings, giving up just a walk.

Through the first seven innings, the Red Sox held the Orioles to just a run. But in the eighth, Santo Luis gave up three earned runs on five hits without recording an out. The Red Sox could not mount a comeback in the ninth, and lost for the 10th-straight game.

The Red Sox went up 2-0 in the third on a Drew two-run home run. Sutton’s fourth-inning triple gave the Red Sox a 3-0 lead.

Marco Scutaro went 2-4 and a run.

Limping to the Finish Line

It’s quite possible the Red Sox have started looking beyond Spring Training games to the fast-approaching regular season. Perhaps they see these games as formalities, not meant to be taken seriously. Perhaps their only goals are to start the season rested and healthy. But along the way, they’re losing a lot of games.

The lone bright spot this week was the performance by Red Sox catchers. Varitek and Saltalamacchia combined for nine hits this week. The Red Sox were considered weakest in their lineup in the catcher’s spot. If Varitek or Saltalamacchia can regularly contribute like this, the lineup will be all the more dominant.

Slightly troubling have been all the unearned runs opposing teams are scoring against Red Sox pitchers (11 this week). Both of Boston’s World Series teams played strong defense (in 2004’s case, after the Nomar Garciaparra trade). If the bullpen struggles, it will be key for the team to not give away extra outs.

But even more troubling has been the string of bad starts by Red Sox starters. Lester’s performances since being named Opening Day starter have not inspired confidence. Nor have Lackey’s and Buchholz’s, who will also be facing a lot of quality pitchers as the second- and third-pitchers in the rotation.

Beckett’s ERA has ballooned to 6.64. It would not be surprising to hear that he’s playing through an injury. But that isn’t exactly comforting: the Red Sox’s first replacement – Wakefield – has an ERA of 7.45.

Only Matsuzaka has been strong lately. And that’s saying something. April 1 can not come fast enough.

In Defense of Epstein

Orioles manager Buck Showalter says Epstein isn't smart, he just has enough money to overpay for whomever he wants. (Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire)

Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter is no fan of Theo Epstein. In the April edition of Men’s Journal, Showalter said that overpaying for players because you have the highest payroll in Major League Baseball does not make you a smart manager.

“That’s why I like whipping their asses: It’s great, knowing those guys with the $205 million payroll are saying, ‘How the hell are they beating us?’ ” Showalter said in the article. He also said that Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter frequently jumps back from down-the-middle pitches during his at-bats, but the refs call balls anyway because of his reputation.

Terry Francona responded with his usual self-effacing sense of humor, citing Epstein’s choice for manager as a sure sign of his intelligence.

Since that time Showalter has backed off the intensity of those comments, praising both Jeter and the Red Sox. Given that Showalter manages one of the worst franchises in recent memory (.437 winning percentage since winning the AL East in 1997, only once finishing better than fourth place), this is probably a smart move. No need to give the Red Sox more reasons to beat you (Epstein’s Red Sox are 24-18 against Showalter’s Rangers and Orioles).

Money Isn’t Everything

Showalter was right about one thing: to get Carl Crawford, the Red Sox paid too much. Crawford was the highest profile free-agent available and the Red Sox wanted to improve their outfield. They wanted him, they threw a bunch of money at him, they got him.

Having a $163 million payroll certainly gives you advantages over teams with low payrolls. Managers for such teams, as chronicled in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, have to find more creative ways to win games. Some do, some don’t. But having a lot of money and using it properly are two entirely different things. For example (stats taken from USAToday):

  • The Chicago Cubs have had an average payroll of $106.4 million every year since 2003 (Epstein’s first year), placing them in the top-10 all but once. They’ve gone to the playoffs three times via NL Central titles, but have only won one postseason series.
  • The New York Mets payroll averages $119.1 million since 2003. They’ve been in the top-5 every year, but have only one NL East title and postseason victory to show for it.
  • The New York Yankees have had the highest payroll in baseball every year since 2003, averaging $193.3 million. They’ve been to the playoffs seven times – on five AL East titles and two wild card births – but have only one World Series title.

All three of these teams (even the Yankees, to a far lesser extent than the Cubs or Mets) show that payroll isn’t everything. And Epstein’s record – six postseason births on one AL East title and five wild card births, two World Series titles – is the best of the bunch. Clearly, Epstein must be doing something other than just throwing money around. Some degree of intelligence and ability is evidenced by his success.

Free Agents, Trades, and the Farm System

Do the Red Sox overpay for players? Absolutely (although “overpay” is a relative term when the average player makes over $3 million playing a kid’s game). And because they overpay, if a player under-performs, the general manager comes under fire. Bad players become spectacular busts. J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka are examples of this.

Such busts can come to define a general manager, but let’s not forget that a number of Epstein’s high-impact free-agents actually came pretty cheap:

  • Bill Mueller never cost the team more than $2.5 million a year, and he won a batting title in 2003.
  • Keith Foulke fixed Boston’s bullpen issues in 2004, and he only cost the team $6.75 million a year.
  • Mark Bellhorn hit key home runs during three-straight 2004 postseason games, then led the Red Sox during the World Series in on-base percentage and slugging. Epstein spent $500,000 on him.
  • David Ortiz earned $1.25 million in 2003 and has since reached the pinnacle of Boston sports superstardom.

No general manager’s record of free-agent signings is pristine. But Epstein’s shows that he is just as capable of careful scouting and bargain hunting as he is of overpaying.

Epstein has also acquired some pretty important Red Sox players via trades. Curt Schilling came via trade. Victor Martinez came via trade. 2007 ALCS and World Series MVPs Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell came together in a trade.

Given Epstein’s solid trade record (ignoring Eric Gagne, of course), you’d think the Red Sox would be giving away all their homegrown talent. Not so. How many major contributors to the Red Sox in the last few years were once minor leaguers? Kevin Youkilis. Jonathan Papelbon. Jon Lester. Dustin Pedroia. Jacoby Ellsbury. Clay Buchholz. Daniel Bard. Those seven are probably the core of the team, and they’re all homemade.

Epstein continues to balance the acquisition of veteran major-league talent with the maintenance of the Boston farm system. Even this year, as he traded for Adrian Gonzalez, he held onto Jose Iglesias.

Buck’s Bravado

Showalter probably said what he said to continue demystifying the Red Sox and Yankees in the eyes of his players. He pretty much admits as such in the Men’s Journal article. He has a pension for bluster, and this was just another case of it. It’s unlikely Showalter regards Epstein with anything other than professional respect. And that’s a respect born of action, not speech.

Wait, Berklee Has a Hockey Team?

How fitting. My 300th post gets published by the Boston Globe.

The Worcester Wildcats, a Junior league (developmental league for high school and college-age players) team, arrived at the Simoni Ice Rink in Cambridge, Mass., on February 12 for a hockey game. Their opponents: the Ice Cats, a club team from… Berklee? Berklee College of Music has a hockey team?

It does, and they’re currently 10-4. Not bad for musicians.

The Ice Cats come out aggressively against the Junior Wildcats, and captain Taylor Martin scores 20 seconds into the first period on a wrist-shot just inside the left goal post.

Berklee’s chippy, physical game disrupts the Wildcats’ skating and passing finesse, and they score twice more in rapid succession – from the right side of the ice by left wing Jon Priest, then on a tip-in by center Neal Warner 20 seconds later.

But with six minutes left in the first period, Berklee right wing Carter Lee is ejected for an illegal leg check. The Ice Cats bench laughs as Lee skates off the ice; this is not Lee’s first penalty for aggressive hits, Berklee coach Jimmy Gately says after the game.

The Wildcats score twice while Lee is serving his five-minute major interference penalty, cutting the Berklee lead to 3-2. That seems to light a fire in Priest, who scores three times in the second and third period: on a backwards pass from Richard in the second, after faking out two Wildcats and going airborne early in the third, and on a short-handed goal (4-on-5) in the closing minutes of the game. He also gets an assist in the first period.

“It was a tough blow in losing our leading goal scorer in Carter Lee,” Priest says of his strong offensive night. “Somebody had to do it, and I was looking up and down the bench, and nobody else was gonna do it, so I figured it might as well be me.”

Final score: Berklee 8, Worcester 3.

The Ice Cats play exciting hockey, but nobody comes to watch. Four fans watch the initial face-off, and seven more trickle in before the first period ends. Even in the closing minutes of the game, fewer than 20 Berklee students are watching their school’s only true athletic team.

Worse, they aren’t behaving like sports fans. They cheer politely for goals, or for big saves by goalie Jeremy Blas, but otherwise they sit quietly and respectfully, as if at a music recital.

A small but rowdy gang shows up for the second period, livening things up by banging on the glass behind the Berklee bench, cheering, stomping, mocking the Wildcats, encouraging fights. Jessi Damron, a visitor from Detroit, says they’re trying to make the occasion “feel more like a hockey game.”

“A lot of students don’t know that we have official school colors,” says assistant coach Doug Orey. “They don’t realize that we have a mascot.”

Orey says the Ice Cats have tried to get more fans by adding music, with mixed results. The Ice Cats brought in a Berklee band for a March 2007 game, but they played jazz standards, not fight songs. Plus, Simoni has no sound system, it’s a half-mile from the nearest subway station, the seating is uncomfortable, the rink is toe-numbingly cold, and the place is just plain ugly.

Since 2006, Berklee students wishing to play NCAA sports have been able to try out for one of cross-town Emerson University’s 14 NCAA Division-3 sports, said Jane Stachowiak, Berklee’s Director of Student Wellness and Health Promotion, in an email. But students who want to wear Berklee’s red and gray can skate for the Ice Cats (named after Berklee mascot Mingus the Jazz Cat) in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, Division 2. Their opponents include Junior teams and club teams from local schools such as Bentley University in Waltham and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. They also play against Emerson’s hockey team in the annual “Boylston Cup” at Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena.

Goaltender Blas says that the hockey team has been a unifying force among its players at a school where musical tastes can create “a conscious divide” within the student body.

“We come from different backgrounds, but it’s funny that hockey is the one thing that ties us all together,” Blas says. “When we get together and watch puck, everyone is just a big family and everything else is put aside.”

Berklee’s administration, led by Associate Director for New Student Programs Tamia Jordan, sees potential in the Ice Cats.

“I went to these schools where athletics created this huge sense of community, and the number one goal of a student activities center is to build community on a college campus,” Jordan says. “When I look at the Ice Cats, I see them as a tremendous opportunity to create a sense of community and a sense of ‘We’re home of the Ice Cats’ here at Berklee.”

Although Jordan says Berklee currently funds about two-thirds of the Ice Cats’ expenses, through uniforms, rink fees and extra health insurance, plans to popularize and re-brand the team are still in the initial stages.

Kevin Gin, Coordinator for Clubs and Events, says that he’d like to see a student internship created to market and manage the team, which he thinks would be a valuable experience for students studying music business or band management.

Gin says that with the right marketing, Ice Cats games could become a central part of the Berklee experience, welcomed by a student body partially made up of graduates from more athletically oriented universities.

While Jordan and Gin say the key to increasing the Ice Cats’ campus presence lies in treating them not as a student-run club but as an actual athletic team, the Ice Cats will likely never join the NCAA.

“I think it unlikely that Berklee would attempt to gain NCAA status as the process for doing so is very cumbersome and we do not possess the facilities needed,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Bethune in an e-mail.

Tamia Jordan agrees, but adds, “Crazier things have happened.”

­­­­­­—-

The Ice Cats’ final tournament starts Saturday, March 26, at the Simoni Ice Rink. For more info, e-mail icehockey@berklee.net

Sharpshooters: Seven 3’s Lead MATCH Past Prospect Hill Academy in MCSAO Semi-Finals

(written, shot, edited and narrated for Somerville Patch)

Prospect Hill-MATCH Highlights

Prospect Hill Academy (Somerville) boys basketball coach John Carolan said before Saturday afternoon’s MCSAO semi-finals at UMass-Boston’s Clark Athletic Center that he wanted to keep no. 2 MATCH Charter School (Boston) out of the paint. If the Mountain Lions were going to beat the Wizards, Carolan said, they would have to do it on the perimeter.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the Mountain Lions did.

MATCH Charter School drained seven three-point shots and beat Prospect Hill Academy, 52-26, advancing to Sunday’s Massachusetts Charter School Athletic Organization finals.

Prospect Hill Academy’s only real threat to MATCH came in the opening minutes of the game. Junior guards and tri-captains Wole Tunde-Lukan and Mitchi Paul made plays on both ends of the court, each stealing a pass and draining a three-pointer during an 8-1 Wizards run.

But MATCH, led by two three-pointers from Tayon Watson, responded by going on a 21-2 run of their own, Watson finished the game with 16 points, including four three-pointers.

PHA finally broke the MATCH run when Paul stole another pass (the team had nine steals, but only two in the second half) and took it all the way to the basket for a lay-up to make it 22-12 MATCH. Paul led all PHA scorers with nine points and three steals (tied with Tunde-Lukan).

Prospect Hill tried to make another dent in the sizable lead after halftime, when sophomore forward Erik Orellana hit a jumper to make it 25-15 MATCH. But MATCH responded with another run, this time scoring 13 unanswered points on the strength of three more three-pointers. Now up 38-15, the game was basically out of reach, as the teams traded buckets down the stretch.

Senior forward Jonathan Tata tried to make his last game in a Wizards uniform a memorable one. In one sequence of plays, with about nine minutes left in the game, he scrambled and jostled for a loose ball, grabbed an offensive rebound for the put-back bucket to make it 39-19 MATCH, then blocked a shot and grabbed a defensive rebound. He finished the game with four points, seven rebounds, two steals and a block.

Although MATCH did most of its damage from long-range, they were also very successful at penetrating into the lane and drawing fouls. The Mountain Lions shot 23 free throws and made 13. Prospect Hill took 12 free throws, but only made three.

The Wizards, meanwhile, struggled in the paint, missing five lay-ups from within two feet of the basket.

Carolan said that Prospect Hill, missing freshman offensive leader Rayoni Matos, just could not match MATCH’s offensive execution Saturday.

“Without our leading scorer, without our leading ball-handler, we were at a little bit of a loss,” he said. “We got off some good shots in the beginning, but unfortunately we couldn’t sustain it today.”

Their season now over, Carolan congratulated the seniors for their leadership, and said this loss should be a learning experience for the Prospect Hill underclassmen.

“My main hope is that the younger guys on the team, the freshmen, the sophomores, the juniors, got a sense of what it’s gonna take to win an MCSAO championship,” Carolan said. “It doesn’t feel good to lose in the semis. We want to be playing on Sunday, and it’s gonna take a little bit more from them over the course of the season to get there.”

Red Sox Spring Training (3/14-3/20): Rotation Set Thursday, Roster Trimmed Twice

Goose’s Gabs’s coverage of Red Sox Spring Training rolls on! April 1 fast approaches, and the Red Sox Opening Day roster is definitely taking shape. Terry Francona announced Wednesday that Jon Lester would open the regular season against the Texas Rangers in Arlington. On Thursday, Francona set the rest of the starting rotation. John Lackey (2-0, 1.72 ERA in four preseason starts) will pitch second, followed by Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The Red Sox also trimmed their roster Thursday, optioning four players to Triple-A Pawtucket and reassigning a fifth to Minor League camp. Among the optioned players were shortstops Yamaico Navarro and top prospect Jose Iglesias. In 17 Spring Training games this year, Navarro batted .273 with five RBIs. Iglesias batted .320 while showing off his defensive prowess. It’s only a matter of time before we see Iglesias again at Fenway.

In a related move, the Red Sox optioned Daniel Nava (.205 BA, 14 strikeouts this preseason) to Triple-A Pawtucket as part of three roster moves made Sunday morning.

Now that the transactions are out of the way, on to the games!

Red Sox 2, Yankees 1

Marco Scutaro scores a run as New York Yankees pitcher Dellin Betances #72 is late with the tag during Monday's Grapefruit League Spring Training Game at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

The Red Sox completed their preseason sweep of the New York Yankees Monday in a nationally televised night game that showed off just how improved the Boston bullpen is. Boston relievers combined for six scoreless innings after Red Sox starter Alfredo Aceves went three, giving up a run on three hits and a walk. Bobby Jenks got the win, giving up just a hit in a scoreless sixth inning. In five preseason innings, Jenks has yet to give up a run.

Jonathan Papelbon pitched a perfect fifth inning, striking out one. Non-roster invitee Rich Hill pitched two scoreless innings, giving up just a hit for the six-out save.

The Red Sox went into the bottom of the fifth down 1-0, but tied it when Marco Scutaro scored from third on one of Yankees minor leaguer Dellin Betances’s two wild pitches. The Red Sox took the lead in the sixth, when catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia drove in Navarro with an RBI groundout.

In his second game back from injury, Adrian Gonzalez went 1-3.

Red Sox 2, Tigers 1 (10 innings)

Being able to say that Matsuzaka out-dueled somebody has been an infrequent occurrence in recent seasons. Matsuzaka out-dueling an elite pitcher in the MLB is even rarer. But that’s exactly what happened Tuesday.

The box score will give both Matsuzaka and Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander no-decisions. But the fact remains that Matsuzaka out-pitched Verlander in what was easily Matsuzaka’s best start this Spring Training. Matsuzaka gave up just two hits and a walk in five scoreless innings, striking out five. Verlander went 5 1/3, giving up an earned run on two hits. He also struck out five.

The Red Sox won on a 10th-inning home run from designated hitter Darnell McDonald.

The Red Sox bullpen did not allow a hit after the seventh inning. Michael Bowden pitched a perfect eighth inning, and non-roster invitee Brandon Duckworth gave up just two walks in two innings, picking up the win.

The Red Sox took a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning on a Jacoby Ellsbury solo home run, but reliever Matt Albers couldn’t hold it, giving up a seventh-inning home run to Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera.

The only other Red Sox to reach base were J.D. Drew (1-3), left fielder Nava (hit by pitch), and non-roster second baseman Nate Spears (walk).

Braves 4, Red Sox 3

The Red Sox took a 1-0 lead against the Atlanta Braves Wednesday when Scutaro homered on the second pitch of the game. Unfortunately, the top of the first was the only time the Red Sox ever led. Starter Lester gave the lead away in the bottom of the first on three straight hits (he then retired 10 of the next 11 batters), then gave up two more runs in the fifth.

In 4 2/3 innings, Lester gave up three earned runs on eight hits and a walk, striking out four. He only avoided taking the loss because the Red Sox tied the game 3-3 in the seventh inning. A Saltalamacchia double scored Navarro, then right fielder Josh Reddick drove in Saltalamacchia with a single.

The loss went to non-roster invitee Dennys Reyes, who gave up an RBI bunt single to Braves catcher David Ross in the seventh inning.

Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia both went 1-3.

Red Sox 8, Mets 5

Lackey continued his dominant Spring Training on Thursday against the New York Mets, showing off exactly what Francona thought qualified him to be the no. 2 starter. Lackey went 5 1/3 innings, giving up just one run on five hits and a walk while striking out two. His performance was more than enough for a Red Sox offense that banged out 11 hits and eight runs against the hapless Mets.

By the time the Mets scored off Lackey in the fifth, the Red Sox were up 2-0. And as soon as Lackey gave up the run, the Red Sox scored three more to push the lead to 5-1.

Left fielder Carl Crawford and shortstop Jed Lowrie both went 2-3 with two RBIs Thursday (Crawford also stole a base). Non-roster infielder Drew Sutton went 2-4 with a two-run home run. Ellsbury also reached base twice, going 1-2 with a walk and a run scored.

Given a 9-1 lead, Jonathan Papelbon struggled in the ninth. He faced seven batters, giving up four runs on two hits, two walks and a hit batter. He struck out none and recorded just two outs, forcing Francona to bring in Eammon Portice for the final out and the save.

Tigers 8, Red Sox 3

Buchholz’s four-inning, one-earned-run (on five hits and two walks) performance might not have been enough to win no matter what in Friday’s split-squad game against the Detroit Tigers. But it was the Red Sox defense – or lack thereof – that really killed them.

The Tigers scored four runs in the fifth inning on miscues by the Boston infield. Gonzalez began the inning by muffing a grounder, then Youkilis committed an error on the next play, followed by Gonzalez two plays after that. Tigers designated hitter Ryan Raburn followed with a two-run home run off Hideki Okajima for the 5-1 Tigers lead.

The Red Sox didn’t fare much better at the plate, where they only recorded four hits. Pedroia hit a first-inning solo shot and later reached on a walk, and Youkils knocked in two. Center fielder Ryan Kalish went 2-3 with a run scored. He also reached on a walk and stole two bags. Kalish leads the team with five preseason stolen bases.

Rays 7, Red Sox 3

Tim Wakefield did little to convince anyone he belongs anywhere besides the bullpen during the second half of Friday’s split-squad action. In just three innings of work, Wakefield allowed six earned runs on seven hits and a walk. He allowed four home runs, including to Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and former Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez.

The Red Sox were down 6-0 after three innings, so there was not much they could do at the plate that would matter. And “not much” is exactly what they did, to the tune of just five hits. Ellsbury and Sutton each had two, going 2-4 with a run scored apiece. Drew had the fifth hit, a single. The Red Sox did draw six walks off Rays pitchers, and Red Sox pitchers stranded 10 Rays runners. But that’s a small silver lining to an otherwise awful baseball game.

Pirates 7, Red Sox 5

Saturday afternoon’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates saw a third-straight poor pitching performance by a Red Sox starter. This time, it was Beckett who struggled, giving up seven hits and a walk in 4 1/3 innings. But just like in Buchholz’s start Friday, the defense hurt the team more than the pitching. Spears’ error at first led to four unearned Pirates runs in the fourth, and the inning ended with the Pirates up 5-0.

The Red Sox got four of those runs back in the middle innings, but Aceves gave up two runs in the bottom of the seventh, and the Red Sox just ran out of outs.

The Boston offense at least came alive Saturday, banging out 11 hits against Pirates pitchers. Scutaro and Sutton each had two hits for Boston, with Scutaro driving one in from the leadoff spot and Sutton scoring once. Both of Sutton’s hits were doubles. Spears went 1-3 with two runs scored, also reaching on a walk, and McDonald reached base twice on a hit and a walk.

Cardinals 10, Red Sox 3

First the good news: Red Sox pitchers held the St. Louis Cardinals scoreless for eight innings of Sunday’s game. Now the bad news: the Cardinals scored 10 runs in the sixth inning.

Starter Matsuzaka took the loss, giving up two earned runs on three hits and two walks in 5 2/3 innings. But for once, Matsuzaka wasn’t really the problem. Non-roster invitee Andrew Miller followed Matsuzaka in the sixth, and promptly allowed six runs on four hits and two walks. He did not record an out.

At the plate, the Red Sox banged out nine hits, but were only able to put up three runs. Scutaro went 2-2 and reached on a walk. Spears drove in two with a double in the seventh and later scored. Youkilis went 1-2 with a walk.

The Red Sox are now on a four-game preseason losing streak.

Final Thoughts

The Red Sox started the week a game over .500 and are now a game under (12-13-1). A promising first four games were soured by a rather pathetic weekend. What’s most troubling is that most of the losses can be attributed to players expected to contribute to the major-league team. Wakefield and Okajima will be on the major league roster, but right now both have ERAs of 6.00 or worse. And Beckett’s 5.02 ERA isn’t much better. Good thing Jenks’s is still 0.00.

Slightly more comforting is Matsuzaka’s performance this week. He’s the fifth starter, which means expectations for him this season will be low. If he can consistently perform as he did this week, he will likely surpass those expectations.

We can forgive the two games lost due to defensive errors. Defense has not been a problem during other games this Spring Training, and Spears will likely not even be on the major league roster come April 1. Neither will Miller, who in seven preseason games has a double-digit ERA.

Hitter of the Week honors go to Scutaro and Sutton. Scutaro had five hits, including a home run, with two runs and two RBIs. He will probably have to platoon at shortstop with Lowrie, but if he keeps hitting like this he may keep his job as starter.

Sutton had six hits this week, including a home run and two doubles, with two runs and two RBIs. A non-roster invitee, Sutton has likely done enough to at least merit a minor league contract. A switch hitter with some major league experience (105 at-bats), Sutton may make a more viable mid-season call-up over Iglesias if Scutaro or Lowrie get injured.

Francois’s 19 Leads Prospect Hill over Boston Collegiate in MCSAO Quarter-Finals

(written, shot, edited and narrated for Somerville Patch)

Prospect Hill-Boston Collegiate Highlights

For the first 16 minutes of the Massachusetts Charter School Athletics Organization basketball tournament Friday at UMass-Boston, Somerville’s Prospect Hill Academy could do nothing right against Boston Collegiate Charter School.

For the second 16 minutes, they could do nothing wrong.

Prospect Hill’s 35-point offensive explosion in the second half was more than enough to overcome a 15-point first-half deficit, beating BCCS 48-36 in the MCSAO quarter-finals.

Prospect Hill began the second half down 24-13, but went on a 10-2 run to get right back into the game. The offense was driven by the defense: during the run, the Wizards stole the ball six times.

Senior forward and tri-captain Gael Francois led the second-half attack for Prospect Hill, scoring 17 of his 19 total points after halftime. He was also solid on the boards, grabbing a key defensive rebound during the 10-2 run before going coast-to-coast, laying it in and getting to the free-throw line. Francois was perfect from the line Friday, and BCCS’s lead was cut to 26-18.

Francois grabbed another rebound, this time an offensive board, after junior center Leo Ziviani went 1-1 at the free-throw line. Francois laid it in, and the BCCS lead was now down to just four. Francois finished the game with five rebounds.

A BCCS three-pointer pushed their lead back to six, but Francois hit two three-pointers of his own. When BCCS called timeout with 2:39 left in the game, Prospect Hill was down just 35-33.

After the timeout, Francois picked off another pass, then hit the jumper on the other end to tie the game at 35, completing the comeback.

BCCS looked visibly dejected at the total shift in momentum, and it didn’t get any better.

On the Wizards’ next possession, after Ziviani grabbed his fourth rebound with a strong box-out, junior guard and tri-captain Wole Tunde-Lukan (nine points, four assists, five steals) gave Prospect Hill their first lead with a scoop shot with less than 1:30 left in the game.

After a BCCS traveling violation, Prospect Hill’s final tri-captain, Junior Guard Mitchi Paul (eight points), dribbled the ball the entire length of the court before sinking the lay-up and getting to the foul line.

Down 40-36 with less than a minute to go, BCCS had no choice but to foul the Wizards and put them on the free-throw line. Prospect Hill sank six free throws down the stretch, including two technicals called against the BCCS coach following Tunde-Lukan coming out of nowhere, stealing the inbound pass, and laying it in.

Matt Prokop led Boston Collegiate with 18 points, 16 in the first half.

Missing freshman offensive star Rayoni Matos, Prospect Hill coach John Carolan credited the defense with kick-starting the team in the second half.

“When we don’t have our number-one scorer in the game, we don’t have our offense,” Carolan said. “We really relied on some turnovers on the defensive end to open up things for us offensively and open up the court.”

Carolan said the key to overcoming the large first-half deficit was to approach it incrementally and not try and do too much all at once.

“That was kind of our mantra during the second half, play the next play,” Carolan said. “Little by little, chip away. It’s all clichéd stuff, but it really applies.”

The no. 3 Wizards took on the no. 2 MATCH Academy Mountain Lions in the MCSAO semi-finals on Saturday.

•           *            *

Prospect Hill Academy’s girls basketball squad, the defending MCSAO champions, were not so lucky Friday night at the Clark Athletic Center, losing to no. 6 MATCH Academy, 42-38.

Sophomore point guard Hellen Assefaw and junior power forward and tri-captain Maishka Antoine each scored 16 for Prospect Hill. But MATCH’s Ayana Mumford scored 28, including four three-pointers. Girls coach and MCSAO executive director Jack O’Brien said three of Mumford’s three-pointers were from NBA-range.

“Too many turnovers and we didn’t match MATCH’s intensity,” O’Brien said in an e-mail. “They outworked us, got more rebounds and got more of the loose balls.”

Lester Named Opening Day Starter

Jon Lester may be the obvious choice to start Opening Day, but he's also the right choice. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Most Boston Red Sox fans would agree that Jon Lester was the unofficial ace of the 2010 starting rotation. Wednesday afternoon in Ft. Myers, Fla., manager Terry Francona made it official, naming Lester as the Opening Day starter. Lester will face off against fellow lefty C.J. Wilson and the defending American League-champion Texas Rangers in Arlington on April 1.

Lester went 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA last season for the Red Sox. He struck out 225 in 208.0 innings pitched. He pitched two complete games.

Although he has never started an Opening Day before, Lester is no stranger to big-stage games. He pitched so well in the clinching Game Four of the 2007 World Series that Curt Schilling had to make up a word (“clutchiest”) to describe Lester’s start.

Lester pitched the 18th no-hitter in Red Sox history on May 19, 2008, against the Kansas City Royals. During the 2008 postseason, he won Game One of the 2008 ALDS against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He threw seven shutout innings in Game Four of that ALDS, which the Red Sox won in the ninth. He also started two games in the ’08 ALCS against the Tampa Bay Rays, where he went 0-2.

Lester: The Obvious Choice, but the Right One

Really, who else was Francona going to pick? Josh Beckett has more experience, having started the previous two Opening Days, but Beckett had a terrible, injury-plagued 2010 season (6-6, 5.78 ERA). And in three Spring Training starts this season, Beckett is 0-2 with a 6.52 ERA. Beckett has yet to convince anyone that he can return to his old position as staff ace.

Based on the 2010 season and Spring Training, the only other pitcher one could argue for would be Clay Buchholz (17-7, including a complete-game shutout, 2.33 ERA; 0.00 ERA in 9.0 Spring Training innings). But Lester has started twice as many games and pitched over twice as many innings as Buchholz. That means Lester has twice the experience Buchholz has, and with experience comes poise. Buchholz is still developing, and tabbing him to start Opening Day might put unnecessary pressure on a pitcher for whom each start is still a major learning experience.

Buchholz will be a central part of the Red Sox rotation for years to come. He is sure to get an Opening Day start at some point. But that’s all in the future. Lester is the present.

It is Lester’s time to prove once and for all whether or not he can be the rock of a pitching rotation. His performance last season, combined with that fusion of power and patience with which he pitches, makes him the best choice for Opening Day.

Wilson and the Rangers

Francona’s choice probably has as much to do with the opponent as with the pitcher. In six starts against the Rangers since 2008, Lester is 3-1 with a 2.62 ERA. Buchholz is 1-2 with a 3.24 ERA in three starts. Beckett is 1-1 with a 6.12 ERA in four starts.

Lester is also fantastic at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. In two starts since 2008, Lester is 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA. In 2010, Lester pitched eight shutout innings in Arlington, striking out five and walking none. He has 16 career strikeouts there to just three walks. Both Beckett and Buchholz have ERAs of 5.00 or worse in Arlington.

Then there’s Lester’s counterpart. Last season, Wilson went 15-8 with a solid 3.35 ERA, striking out 170 in 204.0 innings. He pitched three complete games. Wilson has always been a tough opponent for the Red Sox. He’s 3-1 lifetime against Boston with 1.68 ERA, 3-0 as a starter, with all three wins coming in 2010.

Wilson beat both Lester and Buchholz last season, but both of those games were at Fenway Park. The Rangers scored three runs off both Lester and Buchholz in those games, so Francona could pretty much flip a coin between the two.

Wilson has yet to start against the Red Sox in Arlington. With Lester’s better numbers there, combined with his self-control and discipline, he is the best option available to start on Opening Day.

Lester’s quest for the Cy Young starts April 1. Wilson and the Rangers will be waiting.