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April 15. 2013 10:53PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Refreshing team's new guys step into limelight

BOSTON -- IT REMAINS to be seen whether this team is for real, and it'll be that way for a while. Even after winning eight of 12, even after taking three of four series in a season-starting tour of the division, even after spending each of the year's first 15 days in first place, it's still way too early to know if these Red Sox are legitimately contenders.

Give it until June. Maybe even July.

But in the meantime, and already, it may be safe to say one thing about them: They sure are enjoyable.

"This team, it's fun to be behind," said shortstop Stephen Drew. "Winning games like this, it's a good feeling. We're playing well. Timely hitting, good defense, good pitching - that's what it's going to take."

Winning is always fun, so that's easy to say after what happened at Fenway Park on Monday, where Mike Napoli's wall-ball double scored Dustin Pedroia in the bottom of the ninth, giving Boston a 3-2 victory and a three-game sweep of the visiting Tampa Bay Rays.

But even more than the fact that the Sox are winning - which is a refreshing enough after the past couple of Aprils - is the manner in which they're doing so. Or, more accurately, the manners. Plural.

Maybe the most impressive aspect to what the Sox have done over these initial dozen evaluations of the John Farrell era is that of the eight triumphs they've achieved en route to a record of 8-4, each has been unique. Each has come courtesy of a different fashion.

No. 1 came thanks to baserunning, with Jackie Bradley Jr. enabling a rally by beating a force play at second, then Jonny Gomes scoring from there on a ground ball that never left the infield.

No. 2 came thanks to offensive balance, with eight of nine Sox starters contributing to a 14-hit attack as they pounced on Yankee pitching early.

No. 3 came thanks to a late rally, scoring in the eighth and ninth innings to snap a 4-all tie.

No. 4 came thanks to the thump, as the team slugged six home runs - including three by Will Middlebrooks.

No. 5 came thanks to a big hit in the clutch, as Daniel Nava cleared the Green Monster with a long, tiebreaking home run.

No. 6 came in extra innings, as the top of the order scratched a run together with a couple of hits sandwiching a steal and an error.

No. 7 came thanks to seven no-hit innings from starter Clay Buchholz.

And then No. 8 came thanks to the new guys on Monday afternoon. To that point, for all the good that General Manager Ben Cherington's offseason acquisitions had done in transforming the clubhouse and the environment, it was largely the holdovers who were leading the way. It was guys like Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Buchholz and Nava. Guys who were part of last season's 69-93 debacle.

But Monday it was the new guys who seized the moment, and did so in three different facets of the game.

It began with Ryan Dempster, the starting pitcher who was inked this winter on a two-year deal worth $26.5 million - and looked like a bargain at that price on Monday. He completed seven innings and allowed just two walks and two hits, one of which was an Evan Longoria home run, though most notable were his 10 strikeouts.

When he arrived, Dempster was seen mostly as an innings-eater, as a right-hander who threw a lot of strikes, but mostly pitched to contact. Consistent with that, he'd averaged 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings over the course of a 15-year big-league career - yet in his first 17 innings with the Sox, he's already whiffed 25. That's a rate of 13.2 per nine.

That's also a big reason why he lowered his personal earned run average to 2.65, and the collective ERA of the Sox starting rotation to 1.99, though both could've been higher had it not been for a big play by another newcomer named Drew.

The shortstop made his impact with his glove, diving up the middle when Longoria sent a head grounder toward center field in the sixth. Had it slipped through, the game would've been tied. But not only did Drew stop it, he sprung and threw to first, where Longoria was called out on a bang-bang play, and the Sox were able to keep a 2-1 lead.

Eventually the Rays did pull even, reaching Andrew Bailey for a run in the ninth. But like a good, enjoyable, entertaining team does, the Sox responded in the bottom of that frame. With one out, Pedroia worked Joel Peralta for a walk, which brought Napoli to the dish. The Rays reliever proceeded to get ahead of the Sox first baseman, and even had Napoli off balance with his 2-2 offering, but the slugger kept his hands behind his body and was strong enough to line the ball toward the left-field wall.

Pedroia could tell from the crack that's where it was headed, so he was sprinting from first, and 270 feet later he scored without a play. He sprung to his feet and pumped both fists. Napoli fired his helmet and welcomed his teammates to the middle of the diamond. The Sox had the win, they had the sweep, they had the division lead at least another day.

And Boston, on a day it would come to need them badly, had a team and a scene it could enjoy.

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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