After trying offseason, Red Sox bit frayed

Major arm acquisitions should be big help as team deals with injuries

Opening Night

April 04, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Boston Red Sox arrived in spring training this year with dysfunction written all over them.

Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra was miffed about the club's attempt to acquire superstar Alex Rodriguez to replace him. Outfielder Manny Ramirez had to be a little ticked off, too, about the deal that would have sent him to the last-place Texas Rangers if the players union had not stepped in the way.

The rest was already built in. This is, after all, the Red Sox, who haven't won a World Series since 1918, who lost to the rival Yankees in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in October and fired manager Grady Little, ostensibly because of his decision to leave ace pitcher Pedro Martinez in that deciding game too long.

The Red Sox led the major leagues in offseason angst, which seemed like a pretty big deal until the mind games gave way to the exhibition games, and they found themselves dealing with real problems.

They will open the regular season tonight against the Orioles with Garciaparra out for at least two more weeks with a painful heel injury and outfielder Trot Nixon lost until at least May with a lower-back problem.

It isn't panic time - not with the deep pitching staff that made it through the spring without a major setback - but there may not be much margin for error in their attempt to unseat the Yankees in the American League East.

The Orioles can only hope to take advantage of a kinder, gentler Red Sox offensive attack, because tonight's nationally televised regular-season opener is the first of seven games between the two clubs over the next 12 days. But the Sox still feature a formidable lineup behind Martinez - who will face Sidney Ponson in the opener - and the overpowering nucleus of their starting rotation.

"I'd rather they [Nixon and Garciaparra] be healthy," said No. 2 starter Curt Schilling, who was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks over the winter, "but having Gabe Kapler and Ellis Burks as the fallback is a good thing. I'm a lot less concerned than I would be if we had Rule 5 guys backing them up. If were going to do what were going to do, one guy isn't going to make the difference."

True enough, the Red Sox made two major offseason acquisitions that should help them overcome any short-term personnel problems. Schilling is one of the most dominating pitchers in the game, and new closer Keith Foulke is coming off a breakthrough season in Oakland (9-1, 43 saves).

"They did good," said Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Jim Beattie. "They stabilized the starting rotation with a very good pitcher and solved what was perceived as a problem last year with a guy who does a very good job as a closer."

The Orioles follow up Ponson with inexperienced starters Eric DuBose, Kurt Ainsworth, Matt Riley and Eric Bedard; the Red Sox go from Schilling to nasty right-hander Derek Lowe and veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield before they get to developing fifth starter Bronson Arroyo.

If the Orioles' rotation is looking forward to a Red Sox Lite lineup during two early head-to-head series, the Red Sox still have big bats all through their lineup - including last year's breakthrough star, David Ortiz, who was one of baseball's scariest hitters during the exhibition season, and surprise 2003 American League batting champion Bill Mueller.

"Anytime you lose a player like Nomar Garciaparra, you're losing a quality player," said Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli. "He's one of the best in the game, but that doesn't mean you can take anything away from them as a team. There's no way you can take anything about them lightly."

The Red Sox have to figure that they're catching a break, because they'll be facing a bunch of unproven starting pitchers while they mark time until Garciaparra and Nixon return.

"I hope, against us, it [the Orioles' rotation] doesn't reach," said manager Terry Francona, "but that's why you play the games.

"It's harder over the long haul than just one series. I don't know if it's going to happen to their pitching, but when you go with young pitching, you're going to have some good outings and there are going to be some so-so outings."

Francona doesn't have to worry about that. He has a three-time Cy Young Award winner opening the season tonight and one of the game's top strikeout pitchers going in the second game of the four-game series on Tuesday. Lowe wasn't himself last year, and he still won 17 games.

Considering how close the Red Sox came to reaching the World Series in October - and considering that they now feature the second-highest payroll in baseball behind the Yankees - they've got a lot to look forward to this season if Garciaparra and Nixon can avoid any further setbacks.

"I feel like we have a chance," Schilling said. "The ownership of this team has given us everything we need to win a world championship, and now it's up to us."

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