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The boys are back … and so are the fans

Spring Training games start

By NATHAN MAYBERG - | Mar 2, 2021

NATHAN MAYBERG Red Sox starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi throws in Sunday’s opener at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers.

For Florida baseball fans, the COVID-19 pandemic was heart-wrenching, altering the 131-year-old tradition of Spring Training in Florida for the first time since the 1994 players’ strike extended into the spring of 1995.

The pandemic of March 2020 struck in the middle of Spring Training, shutting down camps and sending the season into uncertainty. While the season recovered with a 60-game season, there were no fans.

The fans were back Sunday, as the Minnesota Twins hosted the Boston Red Sox at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers. The Twins won 7-6 in an exhibition between two teams coming off very different seasons, that allowed fans to attend the stadium for the first time this spring. The public hasn’t been allowed at training camp due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leonard Stachowski of Michigan was among the roughly 2,400 fans allowed at the game between the two clubs based in Fort Myers. “I love it. My cousin’s boy (catcher Kole Cottam) plays for Boston (in the minors),” he said.

Stachowski said he actually misses watching the practices on the back fields more than the actual games. “That’s kind of disappointing,” he said.

“We’re just happy to be in the ballpark,” said his wife Tracy.

Stachowski said “seeing the grass again” is a welcome sight. “Michigan is all covered in snow.”

Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli said that without fans “you can hear everything” between dugouts. “There was no hiding last year,” he said. “It was pretty transparent.”

The Twins won the AL Central Division title last year with a 36-24 record but lost two games in the playoffs to the Astros under the new format. The Red Sox went 24-36 in the American League East and finished last in the division.

On the field, the Twins and the Red Sox players started to answer questions about what this year will look like.

In the opener, Red Sox starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi came out firing Sunday, registering 99 mph with his fastball while not as sharp with his off-speed pitches.

Devin Smeltzer, a southpaw, threw two innings for the Twins and allowed one run.

Miguel Sano drove in two runs for the Twins, with a sharp double down the third base line off Red Sox reliever Caleb Simpson as part of a five-run second inning by the Twins. Sano got a hold of another pitch in the first inning which he laced to centerfield but was caught. A strong showing by Sano this year would be a welcome sight after he disappointed last year with a .204 average and led the league in strikeouts.

This spring, there is also rule that a team can end an inning early after its pitcher throws 20 pitches or more. The rule is intended to protect pitchers and players from injury as well as the coronavirus by limiting the number of players in clubhouses.

The Red Sox stopped the bleeding Sunday by calling the second inning with the score 5-1. That allowed them to climb back in the game with home runs by Bobby Dalbec, Michael Chavis and Jeter Downs. The Twins ultimately won the game with two runs in the sixth inning scored by Keon Broxton and Gilberto Celestino.

The game was called in the seventh inning as part of new Spring Training rules where games can be called after five innings or seven innings by mutual agreement of the managers.

“Any time the game changes whether it is rules or it becomes a little more informal, it changes a little bit of the feel out there but we need it right now and these are the adjustments that we are going to make and we’re all going to get used to them and we’re going to take them for the benefits they are going to bring,” Baldelli said.

“I’m glad that we are doing these things. It’s going to help us get through the spring. We know that with the year that we had last year, that player health is something that’s going to be on everybody’s mind, it’s very important and it’s something we are going to be paying a lot of attention to,” Baldelli said.

“It was a really great day for us to be out there again,” he said. “It’s fun to back out there and playing baseball.” Baldelli said the team’s energy “spikes” in front of the fans.

On Monday, the Twins made it two wins in a row by defeating the Rays on the road 6-5. They received two scoreless innings from Lewis Thorpe, their homegrown southpaw who should get some starts this year. Another Twins draft pick, Brent Rooker, slashed a home run on Monday off Tampa Bay Rays fireballer Tyler Glasnow — the first homer of the spring for the team.

The Twins shouldn’t lack for hitting. In less than two innings against Glasnow, they collected two hits, three walks and scored two runs. If they stay healthy, the Twins will be expected to win a lot of games.

Baldelli said it’s “important to our guys” to pay in front of fans again. Their enjoyment “goes way up” in front of fans, Baldelli said. “Our energy spikes,” he said.

“We have the pieces that we need to accomplish our goals,” Baldelli said. “There is nothing we can’t accomplish.”

The Red Sox are being led this year by Alex Cora, who managed them to a World Series championship in 2018 but was let go before the season last year over the 2017 Houston Astros cheating scandal which he was a part of.

Cora said it was important not to read too much into statistics of those who posted subpar results last year but said players like J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers (who led baseball in total bases in 2018 and 2019 respectively) “were honest about” the decline in their numbers even in a limited sample. “There are certain guys who have to make adjustments,” Cora said. “We’ll keep working to get better.”

Cora said playing “clean baseball is very important defensively” and wants to “keep the energy up.”

On Monday, Cora reported that shortstop Xander Boegarts was being shut down for a few days with shoulder soreness. Boegarts was the team’s leading hitter last year.

The Atlanta Braves beat the Red Sox 5-3 on Monday. Newly acquired starter Garrett Richards gave up two runs, three hits and two walks while striking out one in two innings for Boston.