The Red Sox hit southwest Florida this spring with the swagger earned from a 97-win season and a relentless championship march through October.
But it’s been a sloppy start to the exhibition schedule for Boston.
On Saturday, they lost a pair of games to the Baltimore Orioles. After losing 7-2 in the first half of a home-and-home doubleheader, Boston returned to its home field for a 13-2 drubbing by the Birds.
Or should we say for the birds.
The Sox committed six errors, managed only three hits and didn’t score until the ninth inning. It was their seventh loss in nine decisions (not including one tie – a reminder that this is only the preseason).
A day later, it would’ve been easy for Sox fans to start worrying about their team.
Instead, they were served a reminder why Boston is still the team to beat in the AL East.
Clay Buchholz cruised through three shutout innings Sunday afternoon in Bradenton, needing just 27 pitches to retire nine of the 10 batters he faced. He was expected to throw twice that many pitches in three innings. And according to his catcher, Buchholz didn’t even have his best stuff.
On Monday, Jon Lester threw three scoreless innings, allowing one hit as the Red Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 6-2.
Pitching is why the Sox have a chance at becoming the first team since the Yankees in 2000 to repeat as champs. Buchholz, Lester, and John Lackey give the Sox a top of the rotation that can match up with anyone.
Felix Doubront is showing signs of emerging as a premier left-handed workhorse, and there is depth behind Jake Peavy should anyone go down with injury.
The Sox still have to prove themselves defensively, especially on the left side of the infield where Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks have looked shaky at times.
Both are logging time with Coach Brian Butterfield, who has made a career out of helping infielders improve their glove work and footwork.
Lester was 15-8 with a 3.75 ERA last season.
He won four more games in the postseason.
Lackey won another three in October. Together, Lester and Lackey won seven of Boston’s 11 playoff games, and recorded three of the team’s four World Series wins.
In today’s world of advanced metrics, it’s become trendy to dismiss the “wins” stat for pitchers.
Many observers say a win total doesn’t tell us much about a pitcher.
You’re better off looking at modern statistics like “ERA+” or “Wins Above Replacement” with an occasional glance at the “Batting Average on Balls in Play” against him.
Those numbers may be the best way to measure a pitcher’s talent, but in October you’re looking for a guy who can hang in there and give his team a chance to win.
It’s a cliche, but it’s true. The Sox had the pitching to get it done last fall, and feel that same pitching can do it again in 2014.
The regular season is still three weeks away – and that’s plenty of time for the Sox to shore up the defense as pitchers build up the arm strength needed to lead the way again this summer.
Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.