Garrett Whitlock, who is working his way back to health after hip surgery, will make his first spring training start for the Red Sox on Wednesday. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

FORT MYERS, Fla. — This is shaping up to be a very important week for the Red Sox.

We’re nearly three weeks into the Grapefruit League schedule, and things have been going very well for Boston. They started off the preseason with an 11-game unbeaten streak (not including exhibition wins over Northeastern University and the World Baseball Classic team from Puerto Rico), their longest spring training run in more than 70 years.

Yet, as we know, spring training records mean nothing. Most of Boston’s starters were showered and headed home to their Florida condos when the final scores of these games were posted on the scoreboard. Players earmarked for Double-A Portland and Triple-A Worcester were high-fiving after the final out.

Winning here might not mean anything, but it beats losing. It quiets the noise back home. Most experts think the Sox will finish fourth or fifth in the AL East this season, well out of the playoff picture. The frustration over the direction of the franchise only would’ve been magnified by a poor showing in March.

The best record in Florida is meaningless come April. What isn’t meaningless is the state of the team’s pitching rotation. That’s why this week is so important.

Garrett Whitlock will finally make a start Wednesday when the Sox host Tampa Bay at JetBlue Park. He took the final step in preparing for that start when he faced 12 hitters in live batting practice on Saturday. He looked good by all accounts, even celebrating after catching a popup and then throwing the ball into center field in mock celebration.


“It’s always good to get back,” Whitlock told reporters afterward. “It’s been like six months since I faced hitters.”

Brayan Bello continues to build up after forearm tightness early in spring training. Bello faced live hitters on Saturday and is nearing game action for the Red Sox. Jessie Alcheh/Associated Press

There was a lot of attention on the back fields of Fenway South, and not just because of Whitlock. Young Brayan Bello threw his first live BP of the spring, a 17-pitch outing that puts him about a week away from a spring training start.

Whitlock is ahead of Bello in his progression, but it’s unlikely either will be ready for the start of the season. Barring setbacks Whitlock should only miss a start or two. Bello might be a week or two behind him.

Shortly after the two youngsters were done for the day, Chris Sale took the mound in the stadium for his second spring start. He threw three scoreless innings against the Twins, striking out five and showing a nasty slider.

“It was a step in the right direction,” Sale told reporters after his day was done.

Sox fans know how fragile Sale can be. He has made only 11 starts since 2019, having been knocked out of action by everything from Tommy John surgery to a line drive off the pinky to a bike accident.


Coming into camp there weren’t many fans who expected Sale to be ready for Opening Day. So the news that Sale won’t be the starter for the Red Sox season opener on March 30 at Fenway probably didn’t surprise many people.

Indeed, Boston Manager Alex Cora said Sale won’t be the first-game starter – but not because of injury. Cora says he wants Sale to enjoy the start of the season as a player. What Cora didn’t say is that he wants to take any pressure off a seven-time All Star trying to work his way back. He doesn’t want people thinking Sale is a savior whose mere presence can put the Sox back on the right track.

Yet his status might be the single most important factor for the coming season. Saturday was a reminder of what it’s like to have an ace on the mound, and with Boston’s rotation already dealing with various health issues (James Paxton came out of his first spring start with a hamstring injury and has yet to throw off a mound since) an anchor at the top of staff can make all the difference.

Keeping him safe and on pace to pitch would be a massive development for the Sox. Getting Whitlock and Bello back before too long would round things out and give them a chance to surprise people this season.

With a nor’easter developing back home, it’s clear we’re still a long way from the regular season. Day games under palm trees are a lot different from prime-time games under the lights of Fenway.

But one thing isn’t different. Pitching wins games, in Florida and in Boston. And for the Sox to have any chance of winning this season, they need their pitching staff to get healthy this spring. And this week could be a big step toward that happening.

Tom Caron is a studio host for the Red Sox broadcast on NESN. His column appears in the Portland Press Herald on Tuesdays.

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