Winds are changing at Fenway

Winds are changing at Fenway
April 8, 2013, 2:45 am
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There have already been a ton of highlights from this young Red Sox season, but my personal favorite took place on Friday night in Toronto.

Just to set the scene: It was the bottom of the sixth inning, with the Sox up 4-3, and Jays’ catcher J.P. Arencibia had just lit up Felix Doubront for a lead off double. John Farrell had seen enough, and removed Doubront in favor of 38-year-old Japanese journeyman Koji Uehara.

Uehara, who joined the Sox this winter after splitting the last five years in Baltimore and Texas, took the ball and proceeded to strike out “Dino” Rajai Davis (swinging) on four pitches. Then, he struck out Colby Rasmus (swinging) on four pitches. And then, with two outs and the tying run on second, Jays manager John Gibbons turned to a pinch hitter — and on the first pitch, Uehara got Adam Lind to hit a weak fly ball to right-center and rescue Boston from the jam.

Then Koji went cuckoo.

And not in an Alfredo Aceves kind of way. Instead, I mean that Uehara was just really excited about what had transpired. As the third out landed in Jacoby Ellsbury’s glove, Koji stormed off the mound and back into the dugout, where he started unleashing an arsenal of high fives. The guy had just preserved a one-run lead in the sixth inning of the fourth game of the season, but you would have guessed it was extra innings in late September. He was JACKED. And best of all, he wasn’t alone. As Uehara made his way through the gauntlet, every high five was emotionally mutual. His teammates cared just as much he did.

The clip unfortunately doesn’t exist online, but as Koji high-fived through the pile, two thoughts came to mind:

1. Who are these guys?

There are a lot of new faces in the Sox dugout this year, and every time Uehara’s hand connected with another I found myself thinking: “Wait a second, was that Napoli or Ross? . . . Middlebrooks or Nava?  . . .  hmm, I don’t even have a guess on that one.” The scene was so random and unfamiliar. They were basically strangers in Red Sox uniforms.

2. Whoever they are, I already care about them more than last year’s team.

I care about the Boston Red Sox.

That shouldn’t be a big deal, but after the last few seasons, it most certainly is. And as the Sox prepare for today’s home opener against the Orioles, that’s the storyline that looms larger than anything else.

The team you love to hate is suddenly sort of likable.

Of course, winning helps. Taking two of three in the Bronx was the perfect way to start the season — even if (and especially because) the Yankees are a mess. The Sox followed that up by winning two of three in Toronto, against a team that had allegedly passed them by. They capped it off on Sunday, by lighting up the reigning NL Cy Young and ace of the new look Jays staff.

The Sox are 4-2 on the season, and along the way, almost everyone has had a chance to contribute. The most pleasant surprise is Jose Iglesias, who most definitely deserves to stay in the everyday lineup. Did you catch the play he made on Friday night — AFTER taking a fastball off his throwing elbow — when he snagged a grounder deep in the hole and flipped an off-balance but absolutely perfect underhand toss to get the force out at second? Kevin Garnett calls that “grit and balls.”

Not only is Iglesias the Sox best defensive shortstop since Alex Gonzalez, but he’s shown a toughness and competitive spirit that this franchise needs. And I know, he’s not going to hit .529 all year. I’d be surprised if he even hits .450. But he’ll do enough to make a difference. And if worse comes to worst, Stephen Drew’s always waiting in the wings.

Aside from Iglesias, Jon Lester’s a new man. He already exudes more control and confidence than he did at any point in 2012. Clay Buchholz is bigger and stronger and looks ready to take another step. After that, the rotation is a little shaky. We don’t know what’s next for John Lackey, or if Ryan Dempster can be counted on or if it’s ever going to click for Felix Doubront, but if Lester and Buchholz remain steady at the top, the staff will be OK. Especially if the bullpen can hover anywhere close to where they were last week.

On that front, Tazawa, Uehara and Andrew Miller look like they’ll give Farrell a ton of flexibility in the middle innings. Andrew Bailey’s throwing like a guy who’s pissed about losing his job. Joel Hanrahan’s throwing like a guy who has no intention of giving it back. It’s a long season, but the bullpen’s already taken shape.

On the other side, the presumed brain dead Boston offense is third in the AL in runs scored, and leads the league in stolen bases (8) and OPS (.837).

Save for one horrible mistake on the base path, Shane Victorino is playing like it’s 2009. Mike Napoli’s struggling but still has some pop. Dustin Pedroia is quietly hitting .346. Jacoby Ellsbury is looking more like the guy who should have won the 2011 MVP than the guy everyone’s ready to run out of town. WILL MIDDLEBROOKS HIT THREE HOME RUNS YESTERDAY. And just as encouraging as his power is his swagger and general attitude; he’s like a taller, skinnier Pedroia.

The only guy who’s reeeeally struggled (although Napoli probably belongs in this category) is the one guy who can do know wrong. Jackie Bradley Jr.! The best .143-hitting left fielder this city has ever seen.

But the fact that Bradley’s numbers are so poor and the fan base remains so supportive brings us back to the original point, and the unfamiliar but insanely refreshing vibe that will reside over Fenway this afternoon:

It might be too early to call it love, but at the very least it’s “not hate.” And considering where this team has come from, that’s a big step in the right direction.

Of course, this is just the beginning. There are still plenty of ways to envision this season unraveling into drama, depression and a fourth straight empty October. After all, the owners are still the owners. The David Ortiz situation has the potential to get ugly. Same goes for when it’s time to send Bradley Jr. down to Pawtucket or when Aceves karate kicks an umpire. The truth is that it won’t take much or very long for the positive energy from this hot start to disappear.

But even in the worst-case scenario, things won’t be as bad as they were.

It’s taken this team one week to endear itself to the city, and earn more faith and respect than last year’s team ever could.