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Red Sox off to tough spring on heels of tough year

By NATHAN MAYBERG - | Mar 3, 2021

NATHAN MAYBERG The Boston Red Sox have brought back manager Alex Cora to lead the team. They parted ways with Cora before the 2020 season over his involvement in the Houston Astros cheating scandal.

When you travel down the rocky dirt road to the back fields at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers and watch Boston Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers in batting practice up close, reality fades away like the train on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” taking you to the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe.”

When you watch the majestic swings of the guy they call “Rafi” and listen to the crisp sound of the bat as it connects, you are reminded that Devers was one of the best hitters in baseball in 2019.

You forget for a moment that the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out the tradition of fans gathering en masse to watch Spring Training workouts. Or that access to players is limited to group Zoom interviews which also have limited access.

You momentarily escape the fact that only a handful of news media are assembled at the Red Sox practice facility taking photographs through the holes in the fences watching players practice like ghosts playing alone in “Field of Dreams.”

You even forget that the Red Sox, two years after winning the World Series, finished in last place in the American League East Division last year with a 24-36 record. With the way Devers strikes the ball, you start to believe that it’s a new season and that anything is still possible.

The Red Sox have lost their first two games of the spring but have shown promise in each of them and their players have expressed optimism with the return of their energetic and hands-on manager Alex Cora, who led the team to their 2018 World Series championship but who was dismissed before last season over the cheating scandal he was involved in with the 2017 Houston Astros.

Not much is expected of the Red Sox this year. Not after finishing last in the American League East Division and then unloading beloved homegrown left fielder Andrew Benintendi one year after trading away 2018 MVP Mookie Betts and a Cy Young Award winner in David Price.

Whatever his part in what transpired in Houston, Cora’s skills as a communicator and his energy on the field working with young players as well as veterans show why he is valued.

In an interview Saturday which was limited in media access, Cora said “we’re lucky to be playing baseball in the middle of a pandemic.”

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 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.”

The Red Sox will have a number of new faces this year including former Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino, former Dodgers outfielder Enrique Hernandez, former Twins and Astros infielder Marwin Gonzalez and former Angels and Padres pitcher Garrett Richards.

The news out of camp on Monday that shortstop Xander Bogaerts is dealing with shoulder soreness could deal a big blow to the plans of Boston. Their top hitter last year, any missed time or decreased production from Bogaerts would endanger their hopes of a turnaround.

The team’s hopes for climbing out of the AL East cellar could get a boost from more of the utter domination that they saw from righty Tanner Houck last year when he allowed just one earned run in the first 17 innings of his career.

The team will also have pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez back after he missed last season due to complications from COVID-19 and other health issues. They hope to have Chris Sale back from Tommy John surgery by mid-season.

In addition, the team has a group of young players who could surprise. Michael Chavis, Bobby Dalbec and Jeter Downs homered on Sunday in the team’s spring opener. The team also has 2014 first round pick Christian Arroyo and 2014 second round pick Michael Gettys on their spring roster.

The team also has former captain Jason Varitek, a two-time World Series champion with the Red Sox, helping with coaching. “I’m glad that he’s with me,” Cora said. Cora said Varitek was “the guy running the show” as a player.

Red Sox catcher Connor Wong could be the future at the backstop. He came over in the Mookie Betts, David Price trade and hit .300 last season in seven games. He hit .349 in Double-A in 2019.

On Monday, the Atlanta Braves defeated the Boston Red Sox 5-3 at Fenway Park South. Newly acquired pitcher Garrett Richards gave up two runs, three hits, two walks and struck out one in two innings to take the loss for Boston, which is 0-2 to start Spring Training.