McAdam: It could be a Field of Dreams again

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McAdam: It could be a Field of Dreams again

BOSTON -- Leaving behind the obvious question of "Why did the Red Sox pick the eighth anniversary to celebrate the virtues of the 2004 championship team?'' there were another couple of reasons to question the wisdom of Tuesday's on-field pregame ceremony.

First, the presence of the 2004 club was a stark reminder of how things used to be at Fenway, when baseball was fun, the players were likeable and winning was norm.

Never mind the 86-year gap that was erased when the Sox finally won it all; the eight years that have passed since the first of two 21st-century titles now seem like a lifetime ago.

Secondly, the presence of the '04 team is a reminder of the value of "team.''

Sure, that Red Sox team had its share of superstars, players big enough to be known by one name: Nomar, Pedro and Manny included. But there were important pieces, too. What made the 2004 team more successful than past Red Sox clubs was the mix of All-Stars and role players.

Without discounting the contributions of big-name acquisitions such as Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, there was the undeniable input of lesser lights such as Bill Mueller, Mark Bellhorn, Mike Timlin and Kevin Millar.

Beyond his success at drafting and developing, it could be argued that Theo Epstein's real talent was finding genuine value in the free-agent market.

On the field Tuesday night, then, was a blueprint which the Red Sox can use to dig themselves out of their current mess. To say nothing of serving as a reminder that the road back to respectability and, eventually, contention, may not be as long and winding as some have forecast.

In 2001, recall, the Red Sox were a mess. Jimy Williams was fired in August, replaced by Joe Kerrigan, leading to a disastrous final six weeks in which the Red Sox splintered, tripped and fell. The same team which was a wild-card contender in midseason embarrassed itself in the second half, both with its play and off-field problems.

Sound familiar?

And yet, two years later, the Red Sox were in the American League Championship Series. A year after that, they were the champions of baseball.

Epstein himself has famously cited "the Monster'' -- the internal, self-generated pressure to sign stars in order to make the Sox more marketable -- as part of the team's downfall. But a less-publicized change of philosophy also contributed to the downward spiral.

Worried that the "Cowboy Up'' and "Idiot" personas were overtaking the clubhouse, the Red Sox made a conscious decision to avoid players with personality and instead focused on those whose behavior was deemed more "professional.'' The latter, it was argued, wouldn't be distractions and could be more effectively managed over the course of a long season.

Thus, out went Johnny Damon, Millar and Martinez. In came the likes of Carl Crawford
and Adrian Gonzalez, who came to view the game dispassionately and seemed overwhelmed by the Boston environment.

While the Red Sox wait for their best prospects (Matt Barnes, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr.) to arrive in 2014, they'd do well to remember that character and personality count for something.

Signing someone like outfielder Torii Hunter to a two-year deal could do wonders for the clubhouse. Hunter is a respected leader, a sunny presence and, not incidentally, a close friend of David Ortiz. Though he lacks a championship on his resume, Hunter is no stranger to winning: he's taken part in the postseason six times and counting.

Eight years removed from the 2004 World Series, the camaraderie and joyfulness with which those Red Sox teammates regarded one another was on display at Fenway Tuesday night. It helps that they won, of course -- few losing teams are happy teams.

But their obvious bonhomie is a reminder that baseball can be fun, an element not enough found at Fenway this season.

First impressions: Ortiz moves past pregame ceremonies, hits game winner for Sox

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First impressions: Ortiz moves past pregame ceremonies, hits game winner for Sox

BOSTON -- First impressions from the Red Sox' 5-3 win over Toronto:

* What's left to say about David Ortiz?

Ortiz acknowledged before Friday's game that the pre-game ceremonies and the attendant fuss over his pending retirement have created a challenge for him. Sometimes, it's hard to go from being feted to trying to win a game.

Not that you would know it by Friday night.

In his first at-bat, he singled home the first run of the game. Two at-bats later, he lined a bullet that was right at Jose Bautista.

But he saved his best for the seventh when, after the Red Sox tied the game at 3-3, Ortiz promptly untied it with a laser down the line, landing in the right field seats.

One more clutch hit from Ortiz in a career full of them.

* Brock Holt's defense at third has stood out.

John Farrell is looking for someone to step up with the third base job, given that Travis Shaw is hitting under .200 since the All-Star break and Aaron Hill has had difficulty hitting righties.

Holt, meanwhile, has seized the job somewhat by default, with a .319 average in the last 24 games.

But since starting the last four games at third, Holt has also contributed with his glove.

On Friday night, Holt made a fine stop with his backhand, on the third base line, and fired to nail Devon Travis on a close play at first.

Later, he came on a slow roller to gun down Josh Donaldson out at first.

* The Red Sox have done a better job of late capitalizing on opponents' mistakes.

Last week in Baltimore, the Red Sox were handed a gift by the Orioles when a throwing error by Chris Davis resulted in five runs being scored -- all of them unearned. It took exactly two pitches for the Red Sox to pounce on the opportunity.

On Friday night, it happened again.

Trailing 3-1, the Red Sox used a throwing error by Russell Martin to score one run and put another runner in scoring position. A groundout and single by Mookie Betts tied things, and Ortiz's homer broke the tie and gave the Red Sox a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

Good teams take advantage of mistakes. Two of the last six Red Sox wins are prime examples of that maxim.

Sox may have finally found their everyday third baseman for the postseason

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Sox may have finally found their everyday third baseman for the postseason

BOSTON — As has been well-documented, the Red Sox have tried any number of solutions at third base this season, with eight different players getting starts at the position.

Travis Shaw has the most starts of anyone, with 99. But with three games left in the season, it's become apparent that Brock Holt is being viewed as the likely starter in the post-season.

Holt started all three games in the recent series in New York and was the starter Friday night against Toronto, too.

"You look at the consistent quality to the at-bats," said John Farrell, "and they've been there for him. That's not to say the other guys aren't important to us. But this is the time of year where you're looking to put the best, current lineup on the field and his versatility has shown up a number of ways. He's a confident defender at third base and his skill set is a little bit different from the other guys.

"So against righthanded pitching, that could be the guy we're going with."

Holt came into Friday hitting .319 (22-for-69) in the last 24 games.

Shaw, meanwhile, has been streaky to a fault. In the second half of the season, Shaw has posted a slash line of .195/.260/.362.

"We've seen (the streakiness both ways) in short spurts," Farrell said. "He does have the ability to carry us. But we're trying to get there and we're at a point in the year where every game is meaningful. That's not to say you turn your back on what he did earlier in the season. But we're looking for sparks somewhere."

What's more, Farrell had Holt hitting second in the lineup, in an effort to produce more offense. The Sox were limited to just eight runs in the three-game series at Yankee Stadium, and over the last 11 games, scored more than five runs just once.

Holt hit second, with Xander Bogaerts dropped to sixth.

"This is to create a little bit of a spark for us offensively," explained Farrell. "We've been grinding a little bit. And also, (we want) to create a little more (left-right) balance up and down the lineup."

TIME TO PLAY

As the final few regular season games of his career wind down, David Ortiz acknowledged that it's becoming increasing difficult to focus on the games with all the tributes and ceremonies going on.

In the final 11 days of the season, Ortiz will have had five pre-game ceremonies held in his honor -- and it would have been six had not Ortiz asked the Tampa Bay Rays to cancel the ceremony they had planned in the aftermath of the death that morning of pitcher Jose Fernandez.

On Thursday night, Ortiz has his family on the field for a pre-game celebration hosted by the New York Yankees.

Minutes later, he had to step in to the batter's box against CC Sabathia. Sometimes, it's hard to flip that switch and be emotionally ready to compete.

"I'm not going to lie to you -- it has (gotten harder)," said Ortiz. "We're already in the playoffs, so for the next three days, I don't really have to worry about it. But the best thing about it is that once we get into the playoffs, there's not going to be all these distractions.

"I like to mentally focus when we play, especially when I'm playing for a reason. We work extremely hard during the regular season to get into the playoffs and once we get there, I don't want to blow that off. It's not easy to (do all the ceremonies) and play baseball at the same time. It can be a distraction."