Squabbling Sox head north with expectations, tensions

Lineup changes, injuries leave contender short on players, tempers


April 02, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Team Turmoil has arrived in Baltimore for Opening Day and -- amazingly -- it is not the Orioles.

The Boston Red Sox are banged up and emotionally battered after a spring so painful and fraught with difficulty that the best thing about it is that it's finally over.

Two-time American League batting champion Nomar Garciaparra begins the season on the disabled list and still faces the likelihood of wrist surgery that could keep him out of the lineup for up to three months.

Free-agent acquisition Manny Ramirez, the most expensive outfielder in baseball history, has been hobbled for much of training camp with a nagging hamstring injury.

Carl Everett, last year's home run and RBI leader, asked to be traded after being benched temporarily last week and fined for repeatedly violating team rules.

And manager Jimy Williams made headlines again over the weekend by announcing a series of controversial lineup moves that will leave veterans Dante Bichette and Jose Offerman out of the Opening Day starting lineup.

This is the team that is going to unseat the three-time defending world champion New York Yankees?

Darn right, says Williams, who has led the Red Sox into the playoffs under difficult circumstances before.

"I feel good about this team," Williams said yesterday. "I don't feel [apprehensive] at all. We've moved some guys around, but these are guys who have played in those spots before. I like the way they play. I enjoy watching them play."

One thing is certain, the Red Sox are poised to get off to a good start. Three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez, who will take the mound today against Orioles newcomer (and 1996 Cy Young winner) Pat Hentgen, remains the most dominating pitcher in the game, and he'll face an Orioles lineup that isn't exactly loaded.

The matchup is mildly reminiscent of Opening Day 1989, when former Red Sox ace Roger Clemens faced an Orioles team coming off a disastrous 107-loss season the year before. It looked like such a mismatch that one Boston columnist predicted an Opening Day no-hitter.

Instead, it turned out to be a reverse lock. The rebuilding Orioles defeated Clemens that day and went on to have one of the most unlikely and uplifting seasons ever.

Stop dreaming. Martinez has been almost unhittable this spring, so he should have no trouble dispensing with the Orioles. The big question is whether the Red Sox have enough depth and roster balance to negotiate the early months of the season.

Williams must be wondering, though he won't come right out and say so. He shook up the lineup Saturday, announcing that promising rookie Shea Hillenbrand would start at third base, newly acquired Chris Stynes would be at second and backup catcher Scott Hatteberg would be the designated hitter. Throw in unimposing Craig Grebeck in place of the injured Garciaparra and the Red Sox lineup card looks like it's written on small-market stationery.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, but the Red Sox are trying to project an air of organizational confidence even as their opportunity to press the Yankees seems to be evaporating.

"This is a marathon. It's not a sprint," general manager Dan Duquette said last week. "If it's a marathon and Nomar comes back for the stretch drive -- and we're in contention -- that's a good situation for the Red Sox.

"Our pitching staff is still good and our run production should be an upgrade from what we had last year."

Martinez gets all the attention, and it is well-deserved, but the Red Sox did lead the American League in team ERA last year, so it wasn't a case of Pedro and the nine dwarfs. But the starting pitchers who will take the mound in the final two games of the season-opening series at Camden Yards aren't going to strike fear into anyone -- including the rebuilding Orioles.

Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo has seen better times and fellow free-agent acquisition Frank Castillo still is trying to make a name for himself. The Red Sox are hoping that veterans Bret Saberhagen and David Cone can get healthy enough to have a positive impact, but Duquette's wing-and-a-prayer philosophy of stockpiling long-shot pitchers can't be expected to work every year.

"You look at everybody's numbers, we're not too shabby," said reliever Rod Beck. "I think we're very deep. We've got two guys in the bullpen who can start. I think we're in pretty darn good shape."

If Ramirez is healthy, the offensive lineup has the potential to be better than last year's -- though the severity of Garciaparra's injury and the possibility of continuing friction between Everett and Williams clearly has put a damper on early expectations.

"It's a nice mix of older veterans and young kids," said hitting coach Rick Down. "The competition has been great. Hopefully, every day, Jimy has difficult decisions to make about who to put in the lineup because everybody's hitting well.

"If we do what we're supposed to do, we're going to be very good."

Obviously, for the Red Sox to live up to their potential a lot of things have to go right, most of them related to health.

"That's the name of the game," said Beck. "Teams that are healthy from August to October are usually the ones that end up in the playoffs. As bad as it may be to have Nomar out of the lineup and Manny hurting a little bit, they'll be there at crunch time and that'll give us a boost."

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