Little change in roster, big change in culture

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Little change in roster, big change in culture

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The players, by and large, are the same. Of the nine expected to be in the starting lineup next Thursday, seven started at their position last year, and when Carl Crawford returns, the number will increase to eight.

The starting rotation, meanwhile, features the same Big Three.

For a team which experienced an epic meltdown last September, relinquishing a 9 12 game lead in the process and edged out of the post-season in the final inning of the final game, the 2012 Red Sox closely resemble the 2011 Red Sox -- for better or worse.

There were no free agent splurges or blockbuster deals, no mission to overhaul the roster. The Sox carefully watched the payroll and focused on changing the culture instead.

In the winter of their discontent, the most impactful move the organization made was not to its roster of players, but rather, in the manager's office.

Bobby Valentine, then, is the ''X factor.'' Strong-willed, assertive and involved, he will not go unnoticed.

Two weeks ago, Valentine was asked about putting his stamp on the club.

Valentine demurred, insisting that it was his goal to mostly stay out of the way and "provide'' whatever it is that the team required.

Surely, he was being immodest. Few modern-day managers have a more direct hand on the teams more than Valentine, known for his unorthodox ideas, creative strategy and a dominant personality.

In a sport in which managers seem to be more caretakers than catalysts, Valentine is the exception to the rule. As such, how he does his job will have a significant effect on the success of the Red Sox.

Said one long-time evaluator who has known Valentine for years: "This will either go really well, or really bad.''

Indeed, it is difficult to find people in the game who are neutral on the subject of Valentine. For some, he is a brilliant motivator and strategist; for others, he is seen as manipulative and overbearing.

Much will depend on how his players respond. Had ownership and management tried -- and there's evidence to suggest that they did just that -- they could not have found a more dramatic contrast to his predecessor, Terry Francona.

It's hardly unusual for teams to choose managers whose style represents a complete 180-degree shift from the man whom he replaces, and in that sense, Valentine is a textbook choice.

While Francona zealously protected his players in public -- even if he was not above criticism and discipline in private -- Valentine is known for his almost casual critiques of players' shortcoming.

And so it was that, in the opening weeks of camp that he assessed outfielder Ryan Sweeney's mechanics as "horrible,'' and breezily noted that reliever Mark Melancon had, during one particularly rough outing, demonstrated an ability to "back up the bases.''

(Days later, Valentine insisted that the remark about Melancon was meant to be playful and stemmed from a self-effacing remark that Melancon himself had made to the manager. For those in attedance, however, it clearly did not come off as such).

While Francona was almost paternal with his players, Valentine serves as more of caustic boss, unafraid to make less-than-flattering assessments.

In a market such as Boston, where fan interest and media scrutiny run high, that may provde a delicate balancing act.

Those who know Valentine best regard him as a superb teacher and strong evaluator. The former could come in handy as the Sox work to integrate the likes of Jose Iglesias, Ryan Lavarnway and Will Middlebrooks over the next year or so.

As for the latter, this area, too, bears watching. By nature, managers tend to view personnel decisions differently than do general managers.

Managers are focused on the here-and-now, while GMs typically take a longer view, one based less on immediate results and more on career development.

Eventually, Valentine and first-year Ben Cherington will clash (reports of infighting over Iglesias would seem to be overstated) -- how those differences are resolved, and by whom, could go a long way in determining how successful Valentine will be in Boston.

Valentine's theories -- he said earlier in camp that pitching from a full windup is outmoded -- can be outrageous at times, but they seem designed more to shock and entertain than to revolutionize the game.

His in-game style will be more aggressive than Red Sox' fans are accustomed to. While Francona was more than satisfied to wait for his powerful lineup to unleash its might and eschewed "small ball,'' Valentine tends to be more unorthodox. Look for some unique defensive alignments, more baserunners in motion and a generally more aggressive style.

Potentially, though there are potential weaknesses -- shortstop and the bullpen, to name two -- this is the best roster Valentine has inherited. The lineup -- essentially unchanged except for the departure of J.D. Drew -- led the majors in runs scored and the rotation could be dominant if both Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz rebound from 2011.

It will be the job of Valentine to find capable back-of-the-rotation solutions and manage his bullepn effectively.

But ultimately, Valentine will succeed or fail based on the talent provided him. If the 2012 Red Sox play as 2011 Sox played from May through August, when they compiled the best record in the American League, Valentine will be hailed as a turnaround specialist.

If they stumble out of the gate -- as they did a year ago -- or fold down the stretch, he will be judged harshly.

For this, what is likely to be the 61-year-old's final major league managing job, it is win or else.

And in that respect, even if his methods and personality are unlike any Red Sox manager in recent history, he is no different.

Rask: Last season 'something to rebound from' personally

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Rask: Last season 'something to rebound from' personally

BRIGHTON, Mass. – While David Pastrnak, Tuukka Rask and David Backes are back from competing in the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto, that doesn’t mean you’ll see those players on the ice over the next couple of days. Perhaps the trio will practice on Monday in the fourth on-ice session at main training camp, but Bruins GM Don Sweeney confirmed that none of those returning players will suit up against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the B’s preseason debut at TD Garden on Monday night.

“Yeah…absolutely,” said Sweeney when asked if those three players have been ruled out for Monday night. “They’re going to get through the weekend here. Next week, we’ll evaluate [them] when they get on the ice. But, all those guys will not be on the ice until next week.

“It might be case-by-case for each guy. Those guys have been playing for a while at a high level. It’s unique for David Backes coming into the organization, so he’d like to integrate himself. I talked yesterday with all three of them just to get a read of where they’re at. But, sometime first of next week, they’ll be on [the ice].”

Both Pastrnak and Rask have checked in with the Bruins media over the last couple of days after returning from Toronto, and the Bruins goaltender, in particular, has plenty of motivation coming off a down statistical season. The 2.56 goals against average and .915 save percentage were well below his career numbers, and people like B’s President Cam Neely have pointed to Rask as somebody that needs to have a better season for Boston to rebound back into the playoffs this year.

“There were a couple of years where the standards pretty high, so obviously when they go down there’s something to rebound from. You kind of know where you can be. That’s where I try to be every year and I’m working on being there this year, and taking us to the playoffs and moving forward,” said Rask. “But every year is a new year where you’ve got to work hard, and set your goals to be at your best. More often than not you hope [being at your best] is going to happen, and I hope this year is going to be a great year for us.”

Clearly Rask wasn’t alone in his struggles last season behind a mistake-prone defense that allowed plenty of Grade chances, and that could be a repeating phenomenon again this season for the Bruins unless the defense is substantially upgraded along the way.

As far as the other three B’s players still taking part in the World Cup, it could be a while for Patrice and Brad Marchand as Team Canada has advanced to the final best-of-three series that could also feature Zdeno Chara if Team Europe is victorious. 

Red Sox secure playoff with 6-4 win over Rays

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Red Sox secure playoff with 6-4 win over Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Dustin Pedroia hit his fourth career grand slam to help Rick Porcello get his major league-leading 22nd win, and the Boston Red Sox clinched a playoff berth by beating the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 Saturday night for their 10th consecutive win.

Boston maintained a 5 1/2-game lead over Toronto for the division title and ensured no worse than the AL's second wild card. While the Red Sox technically have a magic number of one, the Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles play each other three times in the season's final week - meaning only one of them can win match Boston's 91 wins.

Among the other wild-card contenders, only Detroit can reach 91 victories.

Pedroia stopped an 0-for-17 skid with a single in the sixth and gave Boston a 6-3 lead with a seventh-inning drive off Danny Farquhar.

Porcello (22-4) gave up three runs, eight hits and struck out nine over 6 1/3 innings. He just missed getting his 12th consecutive start of seven or more innings and three runs or fewer, which would have moved him past Cy Young (1904) and Pedro Martinez (2000) for the longest stretch during the same season in franchise history.

Craig Kimbrel, the fifth Boston reliever, reached 30 saves for the sixth straight season despite allowing Logan Forsythe's solo homer in the ninth.

Brad Miller hit a two-run double in a three-run second that put Tampa Bay up 3-1 and gave him 80 RBIs.

Tampa Bay threatened in the second but failed to score due to two nice defensive plays. Pedroia made a throw from just in front of the outfield grass at second base on Mikie Mahtook's grounder to get Corey Dickerson at the plate. Third baseman Brock Holt made a solid play along the line on Alexei Ramirez's grounder and threw him out at first to end the inning.