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April 01. 2013 10:51PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: It's only one game, but opener lends hope

OF COURSE it must be considered in context, with the obvious caveats that it's only one of 162, that it could well mean nothing by the weekend, and that what happened in the Bronx on Monday afternoon likely says more about the Yankees than it does the Red Sox.

But for a franchise that's been mired in the muck for a while now, and has approached this season of finally trudging its way back to respectability, an 8-2 Opening Day win over their archrivals was especially encouraging because of its suggestion that after two seasons ruined by dysfunction Boston seems to have a fully functional baseball team again.

As a result of that triumph, the Sox awoke this morning in sole possession of first place in the American League East for the first time since Sept. 2, 2011, meaning it was exactly 19 months, to the day, between stays in the penthouse.

And though one win doesn't portend anything about how frequently they'll be the occupants of that perch, or that suddenly all their problems are fixed, it does take off some of the pressure that's swallowed them early in seasons past - their first win waited until the seventh game of 2011, then the fourth game of 2012 - and it provided player and fan alike with the one thing a team hopes to take away from its opener: tangible hope.

In this case hope might come most readily from the nature of the victory, considering that most impressive may have been the comprehensiveness of the contributions and the collective crispness with which they played, all combining to produce a by-the-blueprint sort of victory for which there was no shortage of players deserving credit.

There was Jon Lester, the left-handed starter who needed 97 pitches to get through five innings, but in only one of those frames did he really confront trouble, and even then he managed to pitch through it better than he would've a year ago. He lost his command in the fourth, but he didn't lose his lead thanks to his ability to settle himself down.

He wound up yielding five hits, but after his strikeout rate dropped to almost 2.5 runs less than it was when he was a Cy Young candidate in 2010 (9.7-7.3), his seven strikeouts and excellent cutter made him look more like the Lester of old. He even lit the radar gun up to 94 mph.

Speaking of power, there was the performance of Boston's bullpen, which lived up to its offseason billing by allowing just a hit and two walks over four innings. Koji Uehara needed only five pitches to complete his one-inning Boston debut, then came a succession of Andrew Miller, Andrew Bailey, Junichi Tazawa and Joel Hanrahan.

Bailey got the biggest out, retiring Kevin Youkilis to end the seventh after Miller's two free passes put the tying run at the plate, but the biggest takeaway of the afternoon was the liveliness of the arms. The Sox' final four relievers topped out at 98, 95, 96 and 98 - which is the type of liveliness a reliever often needs to escape a jam with a strikeout.

Of course, there was Jackie Bradley Jr., too. Making his major-league debut without spending even a day at Triple-A, his first plate appearance came with two on in the second inning. In Yankee Stadium. Against C.C. Sabathia. And he fell behind in the count, 0-and-2.

In 173 such situations last season, the ace southpaw walked just two hitters - but Bradley wasn't fazed in the least. Spitting on a couple of tough lefty-on-lefty sliders that just missed, and fouling off another offering, the rookie worked a free pass to load the bases. Then, when Jose Iglesias hit a grounder to short as the next hitter, he beat the throw to second, buying Boston an extra out that it eventually used to score three extra runs.

There were plenty of other things to like, actually. Bradley became the first Sox hitter since 1968 to walk three times in his major-league debut, and added a run-scoring catch in left field. Jarrod Saltalamacchia walked three times, too, and that was indicative of the Sox' grinding approach as a whole. They saw 190 pitches on the afternoon, averaging 3.96 per trip - which is how they knocked Sabathia out after five frames, and eventually get deep enough into New York's 'pen to pad their cushion with three tallies in the eighth.

There was a presence at the top of the lineup, where Jacoby Ellsbury had three hits and Shane Victorino drove in three runs. There was heady baserunning, with Jonny Gomes scoring from second on a ground ball that stayed on the infield and Saltalamacchia wisely avoiding a would-be double play. There were three infield hits from Iglesias, and a couple hard shots from Dustin Pedroia.

There was, above all else, a sense of normalcy. In the end, this was just a single game, defined more by its fundamentals than any fantastic moments, and pretty much routine. But for Red Sox fans, that's actually something to be excited about.

After all this team has been through since it could last be called a first-place club, it's nice to be mundane. It's nice to focus on things like plate approach, and hustle, and headiness, and execution - because far too often lately those have been secondary subplots.

Things have been dysfunctional for too long on Yawkey Way. So when everything functions the way it's supposed to, even for a day, there's reason for excitement. There's reason for hope.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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