Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Farrell fosters winning
"I'm excited to be a part of this team," said the graybeard backup whose presence is among the reasons others in his same clubhouse have been saying the same lately, having come in with a host of other likable veterans - Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino among them - to help change the team's culture and the atmosphere it creates.
But as much as they have had an influence, between the terrific results and the toxicity removed from the room there may be one person above the rest who is most responsible for ensuring that the Sox show up every day in a position to succeed. A year after the team often looked unprepared, and was frequently punished for its distracted play, Boston began this season ready to from the first pitch, and the same has essentially stayed true on a daily basis, too.
And that's a credit to John Farrell.
When Bobby Valentine was ousted from the manager's office, players talked about how much easier it is to do their job when they enjoy coming to the ballpark every day, and when they can simply focus on the game at hand. That's exactly the environment Farrell has fostered. And, so far at least, their record suggests that the players were right.
With Friday's win over the Astros the Sox improved to 16-7, matching their best start since 2002, moving them within two of the team record for April victories, and equaling Texas for the best record in the big leagues. It also marked their 26th consecutive day in first place, passing the champions of 1918 for the franchise's longest continuous stretch to start a season.
It's all a tribute to the way Farrell and his coaches conducted spring training, since clearly the team came north from Florida ready for the challenges of the regular season and with its core values instilled. Sometimes seeming like amateur hour under Valentine, there's now a sense of professionalism; there's necessary and mutual respect between players and coaches, which allows everyone to focus simply on their own work.
An uptight clubhouse seems more relaxed, even while there appears to be more accountability. And while the players appear to be having more fun - before, during and after games - they also appear to take winning quite seriously. It's the ultimate balance amid the grind of the baseball season, really. And it's a factor in why Farrell's team is consistently ready to play.
Entering Saturday, only four times through 23 games had the club trailed after six innings. It scored first a dozen times, winning them all. It was 8-0 in series openers. It had outscored opponents 17-3 in the first inning, and 44-23 over the first three.
Its pitchers had more strikeouts in April (232) than any Sox staff had totaled in any month ever. Its defense enjoyed the franchise's longest-ever season-opening errorless streak. And its offense had scored the second-most runs in the American League - even in spite of three starters entering Saturday hitting less than .200.
"When the team's winning, nobody's slumping," said Gomes, who was hitting .189. "I don't consider myself in a slump, I just haven't started yet."
Meanwhile, most of his teammates are hoping this start never stops.
By connecting for homers to straight-away center field on both Thursday and Friday night - no easy feat on either of those brisk April evenings - David Ortiz capped a torrid first week since being activated from the disabled list. In his first six games, the designated hitter went 12-for-24, with those two taters and six runs batted in.
But even more impressive is the stretch it continues dating back to the middle of 2011. Entering Saturday, Ortiz had over his previous 162 games posted a 1.014 on-base plus slugging, built around a .325 average, a .420 on-base percentage, 49 doubles, 37 homers as well as 113 runs batted in.
Most remarkable about those numbers is that over the course of what some might consider a hall-of-fame career, Ortiz's 162-game averages include batting .286, with a .381 OBP, a .929 OPS, 43 doubles, 35 homers and 117 RBI. In other words, he may be 37 years old - but for some 20 months now, Ortiz has hit like a player in his prime.
After he was hammered in his most recent start, and followed that effort with comments that perpetuated the public perception that he refuses to take accountability for his performance, some may have thought they'd seen the last of Alfredo Aceves in a Red Sox uniform once the club optioned him to Triple-A.
But Victorino's back tightness - of all things - suggests that won't be the case.
Here's why it's telling: When Victorino left Wednesday's win with a recurrence of the ailment, and Farrell said the Sox would sit him until he was 100 percent healthy, the Sox were left with only one extra outfielder.
That same night, they decided to send Aceves to Triple-A, and though the confluence of those two events meant the logical choice would've been to replace him on Boston's roster with an outfielder, but the only two minor-league outfielders on the Sox' 40-man roster were Jackie Bradley Jr. and Alex Hassan. Bradley is ineligible for a promotion by rule because he'd been demoted less than 10 days earlier; Hassan is on the disabled list.
In order to add an outfielder to the big-league club, then, the Sox would need to clear a spot on the 40-man roster. Dumping Aceves would've done that - but instead they brought up Ryan Lavarnway, a catcher, indicating that the versatile Aceves is still considered an asset.
Stat of the week: Friday night, Jacoby Ellsbury stole his 11th base, while Mike Napoli knocked his 13th double and his 18th extra-base hit. All are team records for April.