By Joe Haggerty
FT MYERS, FL It wasnt very hard to envision after the first couple of innings.
The beautiful dream of Red Sox fans and the nightmare of AL East competitors: Adrian Gonzalez stepping up to the plate in the middle of crucial rallies with Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia wreaking havoc out of the first couple of spots in Bostons battling order.
Were deep, said John Lackey of watching the powerful lineup on paper jump onto the field at City of Palms. Its going to be a fun place to be this year. As starting pitchers weve been talking about outlasting the other guy and were going to run into several wins.
Thats exactly what happened for Gonzalez and the Sox right out of the bat on Saturday at City of Palms Park in Gonzalezs debut in a Red Sox uniform.
The Sox took down the Florida Marlins by a 9-2 score that nobody will remember even two weeks from now.
But all will recall those first beautiful strokes from the newest first base slugger in a few brief spring moments that portend quite a bit to come. Gonzalez finished 1-for-1 with an RBI in two innings of work while making a pair of putouts at first base, and said his first game action was another indicator his goal of starting on Opening Day was well within his considerable grasp.
It felt great, said Gonzalez. It was really good to be out there. I was gearing up for fastballs. Im on schedule. We never set a schedule to be ahead or behind. When youre ready then youre ready, and Ive said that all the time.
I dont like to get ahead of myself. One thing that Ive said all along is that Ill be ready on Opening Day. Its gone well. The shoulder is responding well. Everything is coming along. There are nicks and knacks like anything else which I would have had even if I was 100 percent.
With Pedroia on first and Ellsbury already across the plate in the first inning, Gonzalez ripped the first fastball Marlins ace Josh Johnson threw at him and spanked the ball out to left field for a crisp, clean single.
The hit gave opening evidence that the offseason shoulder surgery for a torn labrum wasnt about to slow Gonzalez down in his first tour with Boston, and it also demonstrated just how tough an out Bostons newest bopper is going to be when hes at his full power.
You would think coming off after that long wait of an injury that youd be a little jumpy, but he was anything but that, said Terry Francona. He had a nice liner to left and a good at bat with the sacrifice fly. So its a good start.
He wanted to stay in and thats also good. But we have some time to not rush things.
When Gonzalez strode to the plate again in the second inning with Ellsbury on third and Pedroia on first, he lifted a sacrifice fly to center in a clear attempt to get the run home in a meaningless spring training game. It wasnt all about yanking the ball down the right field line for a three-run homer in his first game in front of new fans, coaches and teammates -- and all of the glory that kind of auspicious start would entail.
Youre trying to hit a line drive right up the middle, said Gonzalez matter-of-factly.
It was instead about a player swinging the bat in a game for the first time last October, and putting a professional swing on in an RBI situation to get the run home.
The off-field approach and willingness to dip into situational hitting for runs are two things that virtually guarantee Gonzalez is going to be an offensive monster in the middle of Bostons lineup.
Hitting is contagious, said Gonzalez. Thats how its going to help. Scoring more runs is just going to help. Whether its me hitting or somebody else driving them in, you see guys getting hits and you want to go do it yourself.
Ellsbury and Pedroia set the tone. It was great. From an offensive point of view if youre getting hits then the pitcher is thinking about that. Then youre getting the mental advantage at that point.
There are still hurdles to be hopped, of course. Gonzalez will sit out on Sunday before playing against the Yankees Monday night at City of Palms Park, and hes ruled out diving for any balls in spring training to protect his healing shoulder.
The first baseman is still using a lighter brand of bat that he incorporated last season when he felt he couldnt keep up his bat speed with the bad wing, but he hopes to revert back to his heavier model this season.
Theres always the chance there could be setbacks or strength issues in the early going as he returns from major shoulder surgery with the expectations hell be a 40 home run guy for the Sox and their first real big bopper at first base since Mo Vaughn left town 10 years ago.
Averaging upwards of 34 home runs a year as the only dangerous bat in the pitchers haven known as Petco Park has everything thinking big when it comes to Gonzalez.
Saturday afternoon was the tantalizing first step.