ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. --
My buddy Rath called from LA the other day to complain that I was putting too much emphasis on the Red Sox winning and losing (mostly losing) these spring training games. He reminded me that it's all about staying healthy, taking a look at the young kids, pitchers getting their work in, honing the fundamentals ... whatever. As another friend Rick Crosby always emphasized at the blackjack table, "Winners win when they're winning." And thankfully, the Red Sox played tough and won one yesterday when it appeared they were doomed yet again.
If you want to get to the games beyond City of Palms, you've got to get in the car and go. And that means long drives to the other team's park on highways that are always crowded, always have an accident or construction to slow you down, or narrow to two lanes with a nearly comatose driver hanging in the passing lane (soon to be a ticketable offense in Florida). Point is, it's not easy getting to the road games, which is why most of the New Englanders flocking to Fort Myers opt to hit the beach when the Sox travel to one of their Grapefruit League opponents. Oh and there's the half-assed directions online.
Even though I had been to Progress Energy Park (PEP), Home of Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg (sounds like the Angels were involved in the naming of the place) perviously, I was religiously following my directions that I wrote up just before hitting the road. Those directions led me to Naimoli park, the Rays minor league facility, where I got to see some minor leaguers playing catch ... way on the other side of town.
And don't even think of stopping at Hardee's for a "quick" bite and directions, because the employees there will cost you another half-hour for the effort. They were more confused than I was. Luckily, after all the driving hassles, I was still able to bang into PEP before the end of the first yesterday.
Starters are all right
The first three innings featured a classic pitcher's duel. Scott Kazmir, who handcuffed the Sox last season, limited the red shirts to a few harmless singles over the first three while Bronson Arroyo was shutting down the Rays in his third outing of the spring.
In the fourth, Arroyo struck out Josh Phelps on all fastballs, and pitched like a No. 1 starter, not a bullpen go-to guy. No score after three yesterday.
Ring the bell
Mark Bellhorn, who was just 2-for-16 on the spring, finally got a big hit yesterday. In the fourth, Bellhorn he smashed a two-strikes double down the line, which scored David Ortiz. He came up again in the sixth, with Edgar Renteria on second and Kevin Millar on first, and the PA system blared the sound effect of a bell "ding" and a horn "toot" to pay tribute. Bellhorn responded by roping a two-out double in the gap, working old friend Casey Fossum to drive the ball for another RBI.
Speaking of Fossum, after letting in a couple of Kazmir's runs, he looked like the Koufaxian lefty we all thought he would be for a few batters. He got Manny Ramirez way out in front on a swinging curveball strikeout in the fifth. Four K's for Casey in his 2 2/3 innings of work yesterday.
Playing pepperJustin Sherrod replaced Manny in left in the fifth and got crossed up on a double by Aubrey Huff, which put the Rays on the board. He more than made up for it later with a home run in the ninth off Jesus Colome that was the difference in yesterday's 6-5 Red Sox win.
In the bottom of the sixth, Manny Ramirez, Ortiz, and Renteria gave the fans on the left field line a thrill by racing between left and center field in a series of "sprints." At one point, Ramirez left early and Ortiz and Renteria just stood there and made him walk back to get a fair start in the race. As soon as Ramirez got back to the line, Ortiz and Renteria took off on him, leaving him in the back of the pack. Everyone got a good laugh and Ramirez yelled something in Spanish to the fans screaming his name behind the Sox bullpen.
George Lombard showed his speed on the basepaths yesterday, swiping two bases. The former running back may be the fastest player on the Sox this side of Dave Roberts. Most impressive was Lombard's steal of home, when Ramon Vazquez took off for second after Sherrod struck out.
The most impressive feature about the cement slab that is Progress Energy Park is that the "berm" tickets on the left field and right field lines allow fans to be a chain link fence away from the bullpen areas, which are just inside the outfield foul lines. Spring training fans can't get any closer to the players or the action anywhere else.
It's good to start a spring training game. Arroyo, Bellhorn, Bill Mueller, Millar, Manny Ramirez, Ortiz and Renteria left the park in the seventh and head back to Ft. Myers in a special purple van complete with a couple of large pizzas for the road trip. Renteria wore a white warm-up suit with light blue trim for the ride home. He must have North Carolina to win the tournament in the pool.
While the struggling Denney Tomori showed more pop than Kris Wilson and Tim Bauser in the bullpen warm-up yesterday, he nearly blew the game in the bottom of the ninth after Sherrod put the Sox up 6-5. Rays infielder Eduardo Perez led off the inning with an opposite-field double after being down 0-2. He soon found himself in a first-and-third situation with no out after walking Josh Phelps. But Tomori got the tough save by bouncing back with a strikeout of Delmon Young and getting Shane Halter to hit a double play ball to end the game. The Red Sox win. Theeeeeee Red Sox win. And Tomori survives to see another day in a Red Sox uniform.
Sports Radio 620, "the Sports Animal," in St. Petersburg was knee-deep in Buccaneer talk on the drive up. They are counting the 171 days until training camp starts and are convinced the Bucs have made all the right moves to "get back to the Super Bowl" again. Somewhere in Florida Bill Belichick is shaking in his boots. This is what happens when your baseball team has no shot before the first pitch is thrown. When one yahoo called in after the game, he was asking the host if he saw the Rays-Sox game in Ft. Myers last Saturday and if he noticed that "Manny lost a lot of weight ... he doesn't look half as big as he was at the end of October." Puhleeze. Manny's the same as he ever was. And this steroid witch hunting is getting out of control.
Speaking of radio, Real Rock 92.5 ran an ad in yesterday's Ft. Myers News Press telling you to listen for a chance to win Red Sox tickets. The ad featured a picture of a Sox player ... Derek Lowe.
Yes, the furry Tampa Bay mascot -- enemy of Wally -- Ray, did make an appearance yesterday.
And in case you were wondering, hockey is alive and well in Florida and making it on the cover of the sports page. The Florida Everblades, winning their sixth consecutive game, roasted the Victoria Salmon Kings 7-1 last night before a crowd of 7,082 at Germain Arena.