It's the going rate

Several key Sox depart for WBC

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / March 2, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Trash talk already had begun flying in the Red Sox locker room yesterday, which is what one would expect from any competition including Dustin Pedroia. As players leaving for the World Baseball Classic packed their bags and prepared to scatter, Pedroia - ever a practitioner of gamesmanship - needled the teammates who soon will become his opponents.

"He told me to pack one pair of underwear," Jason Bay said.

The Red Sox bid a temporary farewell to some of their most significant pieces as players traveled to report to their respective WBC squads. Fifteen from the Boston organization will play, tied with the Mets for the most from any team, representing 11 countries.

Among those leaving here are five major leaguers: Bay with Canada, Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis with the United States, Javier Lopez with Puerto Rico, and David Ortiz with the Dominican Republic. Daisuke Matsuzaka will play for Japan, where he has spent all of spring training.

Their departure will create a challenge for manager Terry Francona, but the players welcomed the moment. They pointed to patriotism, the chance to bond with players from their countries, and the competitive nature of the WBC as opposed to the monotony of spring training.

"Spring training is tough," Pedroia said. "I'm the type of player that, I only care about winning. That's what makes me play better. Sometimes, playing spring training games can get a little too relaxed. That's why you definitely want the season to start and get on with everything. You can play 10 spring training games and get ready for the season. So spring training is too long."

Francona prepared for the difficult chore of managing a team without the majority of its notable players. The league recommends teams start at least four major leaguers in spring training games. Balancing that and giving the starters who remain proper rest, Francona believes, will be difficult.

"We're trying to put a team together for the next two road trips, and we've got half our position players here," he said. "Our concern, especially when we make road trips, is to feel like fans aren't getting cheated. That's going to be hard."

Among projected starters currently available, only Jason Varitek, Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, J.D. Drew, and Jacoby Ellsbury remain. "It's physically impossible for us to play those guys every day," Francona said. "We're going to come up short a little bit."

Lowrie and Ellsbury will see more time than usual because their youth will protect against wear. First baseman Lars Anderson, widely regarded as the best prospect in the Sox' system, will get more playing time with Youkilis away. Rocco Baldelli and Brad Wilkerson, vying for an outfield spot, will receive more chances as well. Baldelli, who is fighting a rare disease that fatigues his muscles, will be used as a designated hitter with Ortiz gone.

With his best players scattered over the globe, playing with an intensity not normal for this time of year, Francona worries about their health. The WBC cost several pitchers successful seasons in 2006, something not lost on the manager.

"It's just hard from where we sit," Francona said. "This is how we make our living. If [someone] comes back from that thing, especially a pitcher, and they're not healthy, it directly gets in the way of how we make our living. If Daisuke comes back and his arm is sore, you can't go out and get another Daisuke. And that's just being realistic. It's not just bashing the WBC. It makes you nervous."

The ratcheted importance, though, is why some players look forward to the event. Youkilis gushed over how important representing the US is for him, that he liked the idea of troops watching him play for them. For Ortiz, the tournament carries more import to the Dominican Republic as any regular-season game he plays in. "It means a lot," he said. "That's all they talk about."

"It's actually going to help me, playing meaningful games," Pedroia said. "Especially in that atmosphere, it's going to make sure I'm a little bit more locked in earlier than I normally am."

The tournament could provide fantastic confrontations. Imagine: The championship at stake, Youkilis standing in the batter's box, his upper body bouncing, peering out at Matsuzaka's double-pump delivery.

"I've got a plan for when I face him," Youkilis said. "I'm not gonna give my secrets out."

Or maybe it'll be Ortiz at the plate. "I'm going to take Daisuke deep, for sure," Ortiz said. "That will be funny. That will be crazy."

Canada's dearth of experienced major leaguers will force Bay into an unfamiliar role. Officials from the Canadian team asked him if he could play center field, where he's played in only 40 of his 771 career games. He told them, "As long as you're not expecting Torii Hunter out there, I'll play."

Bay said the Canadian baseball players, rare in a country dominated by hockey, share a camaraderie; "even if you don't know someone, it's like you know them," he said. The other camaraderie Bay knows, with his major league teammates, will be left behind for now, broken for the moment by an unsurprising culprit.

"Leave it to Pedey," Bay said. "I mean, if there's trash to be talked about anything, this is big for him."

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