Lester 'honored' to be named Opening Day starter

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Lester 'honored' to be named Opening Day starter

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As might be expected, Jon Lester was gratified to hear that he was the Red Sox' choice to draw the Opening Day pitching assignment April 5 in Detroit.

Manager Bobby Valentine made the announcement Monday morning.

"I'm excited,'' said Lester. "Same as I was last year. Honored. It's nice to know you're the first one out of the game. It's always exciting and it's nice to get the first one out of the way as soon as possible, so you can build off of that.

"The biggest thing is, I'm honored and excited.''

Valentine made the decision after conferring with Josh Beckett in Janauary, when Beckett recommended that Lester deserved the honor.

"It means a lot,'' said Lester of the recommendation. "It's nice to hear. Obviously, we're good friends and I know what he thinks of me as a person. But it's nice to hear him tell other people.

"I think that's what people don't see (in) Josh -- they think he's kind of this hard-ass, stubborn guy that doesn't care. I think he cares more than people think about his teammates. Saying something like that means a lot.''

Lester will draw Detroit's Justin Verlander, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, as his opponent, a matchup which he jokingly said he was looking forward to "not at all.''

"I've always said before, I don't pitch against (the opposing starter),'' said Lester. "But at the same time, going into the game, you can't make too many mistakes. He obviously proved that last year and in his career. He's a great pitcher that doesn't make a lot of mistakes to good teams. It's going to be a battle. We'll go grind it out and see what happens.''

If Lester doesn't actually have to face Verlander, he will have to go up against the Tigers' fearsome duo of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

"I'm just glad Victor (Martinez, out for the year with a knee injury),'' cracked Lester. "He wears me out. But they did a great job improving that lineup. It was an impressive lineup as it was before they got Prince. But the nice thing about pitching there in April is it's cold and it's a big park. So we'll see how far they can hit it. It's not going to travel too well.''

Lester was the team's Opening Day starter in 2011, too, allowing five runs on six hits -- three of them homers -- in 5 13 innings against Texas. The Sox lost that game, 9-5.

"You don't know what to expect until you do it,'' he said, recounting the experience. "And then you do it and you go, 'Well, it's just a regular game.' There's a lot of hoopla that goes into the pre-game stuff, which is awesome to be a part of, to stand on the side and watch it all, is great. But when you're actually warming up, it's tough to enjoy. You just have to focus on it being a game.

"I think that's the biggest thing -- the experience of going through it. You learn something new every time you take the ball in every situation. I'll take what I learned last year, whether good or bad, and try to apply it in a couple of weeks.''

In retrospect, Lester said he wasn't unnerved by the festivities and hype last year.

"I think the biggest thing is, I didn't pitch well and we ran into a hot team,'' he said, recalling that the Sox were swept in the set by the Rangers. "That series was ridiculous. They hit everything and hit it well. To add on top of that, I didn't pitch well and that just made it worse.

"But I think my nerves will be more calm (this time). The more times you do it, the more you're able to control your emotions. Obviously, you get wrapped up in that stuff. There's a lot of distractions. It's the first game and there's a lot of adrenaline. So, it's a tough thing to combat. But having that experience, it should be a little easier this time.''

Bell excused from Steelers practice for 'personal reasons'

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Bell excused from Steelers practice for 'personal reasons'

FOXBORO -- The Patriots have had perfect attendance at each of their last two practices. The Steelers, on the other hand, have been working with less than a full deck.

All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell has been conspiculously absent from Pittsburgh's practices each of the last two days. On Wednesday, he was listed on the injury report as a non-participant due to non-injury related reasons. On Thursday, coach Mike Tomlin announced that Bell had been excused from practice due to "personal reasons."

Tomlin added that Bell will be ready to go against the Patriots on Sunday so it seems as though the team is painting this as a nothing-to-see-here situation. And it probably is. Whether or not Bell practices at all this week won't necessarily have any bearing on the AFC title game; if he's healthy, he'll be a factor. 

If for some reason he doesn't follow up his 170-yard performance against the Chiefs with another strong game, however, people will wonder how his preparation was impacted by missing out on the first two of his team's on-the-field sessions this week.

Sandoval’s offseason transformation doesn't guarantee he's Sox starting third baseman

Sandoval’s offseason transformation doesn't guarantee he's Sox starting third baseman

BOSTON - The weight room, as much as Instagram, has been Pablo Sandoval’s home in the offseason leading up to the 2017 season.

His change in diet and routine have clearly led to visible results, at least in terms of appearance. His play is yet to be determined. But his manager and teammates have taken notice.

“Compliments to Pablo,” John Farrell told reporters before Thursday’s BBWAA dinner. “He’s done a great job with the work that he’s put in, the commitment he’s made. He’s reshaped himself, that’s apparent. He knows there’s work to be done to regain an everyday job at third base. So, we’ll see how that unfolds. We’re not looking for him to be someone he’s not been in the past. Return to that level of performance.”

Farrell noted that Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge are the other two players in contention for time at third base and while others, such as prospect Rafael Devers, may get time there in the spring, those are the only three expected to compete for the job.

“The beauty of last spring is that there’s a note of competition in camp,” Farrell said. “And that was born out of third base last year [when Travis Shaw beat out Sandoval at the third base]. That won’t change.”

Sandoval's 2016 season ended after shoulder surgery in April. 

While the manager has to be cautiously optimistic, Sandoval’s teammates can afford to get their hopes up.

“Pablo is definitely going to bounce back,” Xander Bogaerts told CSNNE.com “Especially with the weight he’s lost and the motivation he has to prove a lot of people wrong, to prove the fans wrong.

“He’s been a great player for his whole career. He’s not a bad player based on one year. Playing in Boston the first year is tough, so, hopefully this year he’ll be better.”

Prior to Sandoval’s abysmal 2015, his first season in Boston, when he hit .245 with 47 RBI in 126 games, the 2012 World Series MVP was a career .294 hitter who averaged 15 home runs and 66 RBI a year.

If Bogaerts is right and Sandoval can be that player again, that will be a huge lift in filling in the gap David Ortiz left in Boston’s offense.