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Errors of their ways

Red Sox have been sloppy afield, but they don't seem worried

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Florida Marlins committed 78 errors last year en route to winning their second World Series in seven years. The Red Sox? They're on pace to log 149 errors -- 11 more than the Tigers committed last year in falling one loss shy of catching the 1962 Mets (120) -- as they chase their first world championship in 86 years.

That may not bode well for the Sox, particularly since Curt Schilling reminded everyone after an especially hapless fielding display by the Boston nine in Toronto last week that championship-caliber teams need to consistently pitch well and play sound defense. When Schilling won a World Series ring in 2001, his Diamondbacks committed only 84 errors.

But take heart, fretful Sox fans. The last four Sox teams that advanced to the World Series hardly ranked as defensive juggernauts. The '86 Sox committed 129 errors during the regular season, and Bill Buckner's miscue in Game 6 of the Series remains one of the most painful in franchise history. The '75 Sox rang up 139 errors, while the '67 team logged 142, and the '46 squad checked in at 139.

All may not be lost.

"Obviously, we don't have a whole lot of speed, so you're going to be vulnerable a lot on defense sometimes," said third base coach Dale Sveum, who spends hours a day studying computer data and videotape to prepare the Sox defense for each game. "But one good thing we have on this ball club, which comes around once in a lifetime, is very, very aggressive players. They don't carry one error into the next play. That's the most important thing."

No team in the majors has committed more errors than the Sox, who are deadlocked with the Tigers at 35 (the American League average is 26). The Sox, who have played 38 games, were charged with 25 errors last year over the same span.

Yet the Sox have 124 games to play, they expect to improve with the return of Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon, and they have managed to start the season 22-16. They also have shown resilience.

"The key to it all is, what do you do on the next play?" said Sveum, who played 12 years in the majors as an infielder. "The guys on this team aren't fazed by what happens. That's the way you've got to play this game. We're all going to make mistakes. This is a very special bunch of guys who play by the seat of their pants. It's not going to be pretty sometimes, but they have more heart than any ball club I've ever been part of."

The Sox clearly miss Garciaparra and Nixon in the field. While Pokey Reese has made five errors subbing spectacularly at shortstop, Mark Bellhorn has filled in ably at second base (two errors) though he lacks Reese's range. Reese ranks second only to Anaheim's David Eckstein (.909) among AL shortstops with an .893 "zone rating," which measures the percentage of balls a player fields in his defensive zone, as defined by Stats Inc.

The Sox have been less sharp at the corners, however. Third baseman Bill Mueller has committed more errors (seven) than any AL third baseman but Baltimore's Melvin Mora, who has made 11 in his first full year at the position. Mueller has played part of the season with a swollen right knee, which certainly has not helped.

At first base, the Sox have committed more errors (five) and posted a lower fielding percentage (.986) than any other team in the league. They have been handicapped by needing to rotate four players (David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, David McCarty, and Brian Daubach) through the position while they fill Nixon's void in right. Ortiz, who has started the most games (13) at first base, has committed two errors, while Millar (11 starts), McCarty (seven), and Daubach (seven) each has made one error there.

In right field, where only the Royals have compiled a lower fielding percentage (.959) than the Sox (.963), Millar has carried the bulk of the load, starting 20 games and committing two errors. He lacks Nixon's experience at the position and Gabe Kapler's speed (Kapler has started 16 games in right and made one error there), but the Sox have tried to find a way to cover first base, right field, and the DH role while keeping Millar's bat in the lineup.

"He knows he's not the fastest guy in the world," manager Terry Francona said, "but he gives you everything he has."

Despite his limitations, Millar made a couple of fine diving catches in the Toronto series, including a run-saving snare of a line drive by Vernon Wells Saturday to help preserve a 4-0 shutout.

"My speed isn't great, so I've got to get good jumps on the baseball," Millar said. "That's where I can make it up a little bit."

While Manny Ramirez has been adequate in left field, Johnny Damon, who covers nearly as much ground in center field as anyone in the league, has struggled lately. He has been bedeviled by a number of balls that he said have "flabbergasted" him by changing directions in flight. After he led AL center fielders last year with a .997 fielding percentage while committing only one error, Damon already has made one error this season. Still, he ranks among the leaders in zone rating.

As for Sox pitchers, who have made six errors, only Kansas City's staff has committed more (10). The bright spot has been the catching tandem of Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli, who have combined for only one error (by Mirabelli).

In any case, the problem has not been preparation. Sveum studies computer spray charts before each game that show where each opposing batter tends to hit balls off each of the team's pitchers, based on information compiled over the last five years.

"I can punch it up and say, `Wow, this guy hits every ball in the 6-hole,' or, `Every time Pedro [Martinez] pitches, for some reason, lefthanders hit more balls to the second baseman's right than to his left,' " Sveum said. "It's very handy."

Then he watches videotape of each opposing hitter batting against the Sox pitcher who will start the game. Sveum studies how the hitters reacted, for instance, to the breaking balls. Then he checks with Varitek or Mirabelli for what else he should know about the pitching strategy before he reviews his positioning plan with each infielder. During the game, Sveum also relies on his instincts, though the fielders are free to use their own.

"Most of the errors have been aggressive errors," said Sveum. "They haven't been tentative errors. That's where you would get a little concerned."

Indeed, Damon said there may be no cause for concern. He said he considers the Twins the best all-round defensive team and the Sox close behind.

"We're just going through a little funk, and it gets magnified when you lose a close game," he said. "But we feel like we have a very good defensive team."

Just how good remains to be seen.

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