Punto Powers Red Sox Past Blue Jays and Into Fourth Place

Nick Punto watches the flight of the ball after hitting a home run off Blue Jays pitcher Carlos Villanueva during the ninth inning of Saturday's baseball game in Toronto. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)

Ask anyone – teammate, coach, manager, reporter – and he’ll tell you the same thing: Nick Punto is still finding his swing.

Punto found his swing Saturday at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, going 3-for-4 and falling a triple short of the cycle while driving in two and scoring two runs. The Red Sox beat the Blue Jays, 7-4, moving into sole possession of fourth place in the AL East.

Punto’s first hit came in a second-inning sequence of four consecutive Red Sox hits, beginning with a Ryan Sweeney single, off Blue Jays starter Kyle Drabek. After Will Middlebrooks drove in Jarrod Saltalamacchia and moved Sweeney to third with a single to right, Punto doubled to score Sweeney and make it 2-0 Red Sox.

With Middlebrooks and Punto on second and third, Daniel Nava then hit a line drive at Colby Rasmus in center field. The ball hit Rasmus in the glove and fell to the turf, and both Middlebrooks and Punto scored, putting the Red Sox up 4-0.

The play could’ve easily been ruled an error, but instead it was a called a two-RBI single.

Punto also singled in the top of the seventh but advanced no farther than second base, then homered in the ninth to make it 7-4 Boston. Facing reliever Carlos Villanueva, Punto crushed a 2-0 fastball into the second deck overlooking right field for his first home run of the season.

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Tigers Maul Red Sox Pitching, Avoid Sweep

Miguel Cabrera knocks in Quintin Berry in the fifth inning of Thursday's Red Sox-Tigers game at Fenway Park. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With two inherited runners on and two outs in the top of the eighth, Matt Albers struck out left fielder Don Kelly looking to end the threat.

That was basically the only good thing the Boston Red Sox did on the mound all night.

The Detroit Tigers clubbed 14 hits off Josh Beckett and two relievers Thursday, beating the Red Sox, 7-3, and avoiding the sweep. The Red Sox remain in last place in the AL East, a game behind the Toronto Blue Jays, whom they’ll play on the road this weekend.

Flat Beckett Can’t Hold the Lead

Though Beckett pitched an eight-pitch, 1-2-3 first, his struggles began an inning later, with back-to-back one-out hits putting Tigers on second and third. Beckett got out of the second thanks to Ryan Sweeney, who covered a fair amount of ground to catch Jhonny Peralta‘s fly ball near Pesky’s Pole. Sweeney then threw a perfect one-hopper to Jarrod Saltamacchia, gunning down Delmon Young (3-5) at the plate to end the threat.

Saltalamacchia and Sweeney helped give Beckett a two-run lead in the bottom of the second, with Saltamacchia homering to center to lead off the inning. Sweeney then singled and scored from first on a double to the center field warning track by Scott Podsednik, who’s batting .444 in 12 games this season.

But Beckett immediately coughed up the lead, allowing three runs in the top of the third. Center fielder Quintin Berry (3-5) put the Tigers on the board with an RBI single with two men on, and Brennan Boesch tied the game with a sacrifice fly. Berry then stole second and went to third on a flyout, and Prince Fielder (2-4) singled to center to put the Tigers up 3-2.

Saltalacchia bailed out Beckett in the bottom of the third, following up a Kevin Youkilis double with a game-tying single, but Beckett just couldn’t regain the sharpness his pitches had in the first inning. Berry reached on an infield single to start the fifth, went to third on a stolen base and throwing error by Saltalamacchia, then scored on a single by Miguel Cabrera (2-5) to put the Tigers back up 4-3.

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Athletics’ Norberto Halts Red Sox Comeback in Ninth

Oakland Athletics second baseman Jemile Weeks drives in two in the fourth inning of Tuesday's game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Down two with two men on in the bottom of the ninth, Kevin Youkilis grabbed a batting helmet. The oft-injured Youkilis didn’t start Tuesday against the Oakland Athletics due to back stiffness, but no one left on the bench gave the Boston Red Sox a better chance of tying and possibly winning the game.

Unfortunately, Youkilis just couldn’t get loose enough to bat. The almost-comeback ended with the “almost” fully intact. The Athletics beat the Red Sox, 5-3.

Norberto Dominates in Two-Thirds Inning

Down 5-1 entering the ninth, the Red Sox finally broke through against reliever Grant Balfour. Cody Ross led off with a double, his third hit and second double of the game, and the Red Sox loaded the bases on Marlon Byrd‘s one-out single and Nick Punto‘s third walk of the game.

Sensing Balfour’s nervousness, the Fenway Park crowd did their best to rattle him, repeatedly chanting his name in a chorus of sing-song mockeries. The fans may very well have succeeded, because Balfour gave up a two-RBI single to Mike Aviles to cut the Athletics’ lead to 5-3.

Lefty Jordan Norberto relieved Balfour following Aviles’ hit, but without Youkilis the Red Sox went with Lars Anderson, who had only entered the game one inning prior. Andersen had yet to get a hit off a lefty in his career, and Norberto struck him out easily on four pitches.

Dustin Pedroia, who’d scored Boston’s only run through the first eight innings on an Adrian Gonzalez RBI ground out in the fourth, followed Anderson. Norberto got Pedroia to ground into an easy fielder’s choice at second base, ending the game and giving Norberto his first save of the season.

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Red Sox Spring Training Update (3/19-25): Lester to Start Opening Day, Jenks Charged with DUI

Dustin Pedroia reacts after getting hit by a pitch during Thursday's Spring Training game against the Yankees. X-Rays were negative, and Pedroia returned Saturday. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new Spring Training Player of the Week! With a .571 batting average, three runs, four doubles and an RBI in four games, Mike Aviles takes over. Hopefully this award propels him to a fantastic season, finally giving the Red Sox some stability at shortstop.

In other Spring Training news, Bobby Valentine picked Jon Lester to start Opening Day for the second consecutive year. And in a moment of true stupidity, Bobby Jenks crashed his car after taking too many muscle relaxers early Friday morning. Lee County police officers arrested Jenks and charged him with DUI.

The Red Sox finally had a bad week, going 1-6-1, bringing their record back to .500. Sports of Boston’s weekly Spring Training Update fills you in on the rest.

Twins 8, Red Sox 4

Jacoby Ellsbury‘s RBI single in the third Monday capped a three-run inning, and he finished with two of Boston’s nine hits.

The Red Sox led 3-2 going into the sixth, but Mark Melancon gave up a bases-loaded double to Minnesota center fielder Joe Benson, earning a blown save and the loss. Another rough outing from Scott Atchison (4.91 ERA in five appearances) made it 8-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth.

Felix Doubront started and went 4.2 innings, giving up two earned runs on eight hits, a walk and three strikeouts. Andrew Bailey allowed just a walk in a scoreless seventh.

Blue Jays 9, Red Sox 2

Daniel Bard started, giving up three runs in the second inning Tuesday but limiting Toronto to just a hit and a walk through his other four. Bard’s ability to let the second inning go suggests he has the composure to start games.

The Red Sox got two runs back in the bottom of the second on Aviles’ double and Kelly Shoppach‘s first home run of the preseason, but otherwise Blue Jays pitchers dominated, limiting the Red Sox to just five hits and a walk Tuesday.

Bard took the loss, but the bullpen really failed, allowing six additional earned runs. Of the five relievers Boston used, only Andrew Miller didn’t allow a run, and only because he left after two pitches with a strained hamstring. It was Miller’s second injury this March.

Continue reading Red Sox Spring Training Update (3/19-25): Lester to Start Opening Day, Jenks Charged with DUI

Red Sox Spring Training Update (3/12-18): Ciriaco Continues to Shine

The Red Sox are either celebrating Pedro Ciriaco's walk-off extra-innings home run against the Marlins Monday or him retaining his "Spring Training Player of the Week" title. (Photo by Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox)

Non-roster shortstop Pedro Ciriaco gave the Boston Red Sox some pretty good reasons to keep on the squad come opening day. After winning SoB’s inaugural “Spring Training Player of the Week,” Ciriaco followed it up by batting .538 with two doubles and a home run in six games this week. He scored four runs and drove in five.

The Red Sox as a team matched last week’s success, once again going 4-2-1. How’d they get there? Here’s this week’s Red Sox Spring Training Update.

Red Sox 5, Marlins 3 (10)

After Nate Spears bunted his way to first with one down in the bottom of tenth Monday, Ciriaco drilled a 1-0 home run to left, giving the Red Sox their first walk-off win in preseason.

Prior to Ciriaco, the Red Sox had gone up 1-0 in the second on a triple from Mike Aviles (2-3) and an RBI double from Nick Punto. As two likely major leaguers, this sequence is particularly encouraging. The Red Sox added two in the third on an RBI single from Cody Ross and a sacrifice fly from Kelly Shoppach.

Josh Beckett started and went four innings, giving up an earned run on a hit, two walks and three strikeouts. He also hit two batters. Scott Atchison blew a 3-2 lead in the ninth by giving up an RBI sacrifice fly, setting up Ciriaco’s game-ender.

Non-roster pitcher Jesse Carlson gave up a hit and struck out one in a scoreless tenth for the win.

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2012 Red Sox Preview: Infielders

Left to right: Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis highlight the 2012 Red Sox among the infielders and DH. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images North America)

Starting this week, Sports of Boston kicks off a weekly preview of the 2012 Red Sox. We’re starting with the infielders, who last season provided most of the pop on the league’s top-ranked offense.

You’ll need to check SoB to get the entire preview, but I handled the infielders. And here they are!

Corner Infielders

Adrian Gonzalez will start at first base come April. He tied for the league-lead in hits last year with 213, came in second with a .338 batting average and ranked among the top 10 in RBIs (117, fifth), doubles (45, sixth), on-base percentage (.410, sixth), and OPS (.957, seventh). Dismissing any preseason fears of an NL hitter struggling at Fenway, Gonzalez set personal-bests in hits and OBP while playing Gold Glove-winning first base.

Some analysts say Gonzalez faltered in September, leading to the Red Sox’s historic collapse, but the numbers don’t back up that claim. Gonzalez is an absolute game-changer with maybe the most beautiful swing in baseball.

Kevin Youkilis, meanwhile, starts at third. Injuries have limited Youkilis the last two seasons, knocking his total games from 135+ from 2006-2009 to 120 and 102 since 2010. Those absences have likely affected his sense of pitch-location, something once so strong it earned a two-page spread in Michael Lews’ Moneyball.

When he’s healthy, Youkilis is an athletic third baseman with tremendous plate-discipline. He’s just as capable of hitting a home run as he is drawing a walk. He’s also adaptable, able to hit in different lineup spots and move to first base (where he won a Gold Glove in 2007) without sacrificing success.

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