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Boston Red Sox

Miracle workers at it again as Red Sox prepare to open season

  • Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz talks in the dugout before an exhibition baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)<br/><br/>

    Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz talks in the dugout before an exhibition baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

  • Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester pitches in the first inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Fort Myers, Fla., Saturday, March 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

    Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester pitches in the first inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Fort Myers, Fla., Saturday, March 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • Boston Red Sox's Koji Uehara, of Japan, delivers a warm-up pitch in the fifth inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1 over the Braves. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

    Boston Red Sox's Koji Uehara, of Japan, delivers a warm-up pitch in the fifth inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1 over the Braves. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

  • Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, right, watches the flight of his double, in front of Atlanta Braves catcher Gerald Laird during the fourth inning of an exhibition baseball game Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

    Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, right, watches the flight of his double, in front of Atlanta Braves catcher Gerald Laird during the fourth inning of an exhibition baseball game Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

  • Boston Red Sox's Will Middlebrooks runs to first on a single off a pitch by Atlanta Braves pitcher Anthony Varvaro in the fifth inning of a spring exhibition baseball game on Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

    Boston Red Sox's Will Middlebrooks runs to first on a single off a pitch by Atlanta Braves pitcher Anthony Varvaro in the fifth inning of a spring exhibition baseball game on Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

  • Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia throws to first base to retire Atlanta Braves' Tommy La Stella in the fifth inning of an exhibition baseball game Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

    Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia throws to first base to retire Atlanta Braves' Tommy La Stella in the fifth inning of an exhibition baseball game Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

  • Boston Red Sox's Mike Napoli swings at a pitch by Atlanta Braves' Alex Wood in the first inning of an exhibition baseball game Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1 over the Braves. Napoli flied out on the at-bat. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

    Boston Red Sox's Mike Napoli swings at a pitch by Atlanta Braves' Alex Wood in the first inning of an exhibition baseball game Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1 over the Braves. Napoli flied out on the at-bat. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

  • Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts and second baseman Dustin Pedroia, right, talk between innings an exhibition baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Fort Myers, Fla., Saturday, March 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

    Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts and second baseman Dustin Pedroia, right, talk between innings an exhibition baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Fort Myers, Fla., Saturday, March 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz talks in the dugout before an exhibition baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)<br/><br/>

    Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz talks in the dugout before an exhibition baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

  • Boston Red Sox's Koji Uehara, of Japan, delivers a warm-up pitch in the fifth inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1 over the Braves. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

    Boston Red Sox's Koji Uehara, of Japan, delivers a warm-up pitch in the fifth inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1 over the Braves. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

  • Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester pitches in the first inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Fort Myers, Fla., Saturday, March 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

    Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester pitches in the first inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Fort Myers, Fla., Saturday, March 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

  • Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz talks in the dugout before an exhibition baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)<br/><br/>
  • Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester pitches in the first inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Fort Myers, Fla., Saturday, March 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
  • Boston Red Sox's Koji Uehara, of Japan, delivers a warm-up pitch in the fifth inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1 over the Braves. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
  • Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, right, watches the flight of his double, in front of Atlanta Braves catcher Gerald Laird during the fourth inning of an exhibition baseball game Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
  • Boston Red Sox's Will Middlebrooks runs to first on a single off a pitch by Atlanta Braves pitcher Anthony Varvaro in the fifth inning of a spring exhibition baseball game on Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
  • Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia throws to first base to retire Atlanta Braves' Tommy La Stella in the fifth inning of an exhibition baseball game Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
  • Boston Red Sox's Mike Napoli swings at a pitch by Atlanta Braves' Alex Wood in the first inning of an exhibition baseball game Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1 over the Braves. Napoli flied out on the at-bat. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
  • Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts and second baseman Dustin Pedroia, right, talk between innings an exhibition baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Fort Myers, Fla., Saturday, March 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
  • Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz talks in the dugout before an exhibition baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)<br/><br/>
  • Boston Red Sox's Koji Uehara, of Japan, delivers a warm-up pitch in the fifth inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, March 7, 2014, in Fort, Myers, Fla. The Red Sox won 4-1 over the Braves. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
  • Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester pitches in the first inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Fort Myers, Fla., Saturday, March 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Repeating as champions is one thing. Repeating a miracle is a different story. Starting with tomorrow’s opener in Baltimore, the 2014 Red Sox will find out if Boston’s 2013 World Series title can be duplicated with a re-mix of pitching, depth and chemistry, or if last season was just a fortunate series of events.

Every championship team catches some breaks and finds ways to deliver in the clutch, that indefinable bane of sabermetricians. But last year’s Red Sox rode clutch breaks to an extreme. They came from behind in 36 of their 97 regular-season wins, including 22 in their last at-bat and 11 walk-offs. Reproducing that kind of late-inning magic this season feels like an impossible task.

A knack for timely hits wasn’t the only end-game phenomenon that powered last year’s title run. There was also the high-fiving, strike-throwing, door-slamming revelation known as Koji Uehara. The Sox lost two closers to injury (Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey) and saw another candidate fail (Junichi Tazawa) before they turned to Uehara. What looked like misfortune turned into a fortune that yielded 21 saves, a 1.09 ERA and a 0.57 walks plus hits per nine innings, the lowest WHIP in baseball history by a player who pitched at least 50 innings.

Even though Uehara has been lights-out this spring (no runs, no hits, one walk and seven strikeouts in six innings), it’s hard to imagine that kind of history repeating itself. A pitcher in his prime would have a hard time replicating the numbers Uehara posted last season, but he’s turning 39 on Thursday, and pitchers that age don’t usually bounce right back into shape a year after making 86 appearances.

Age also is a concern behind the plate. The two catchers, A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross, are both 37. That’s a lot of years for a backstop, and neither are coming off great offensive seasons. Ross came through in the playoffs, but he hit .216 with a .298 on-base percentage and .382 slugging percentage in the regular season, and Pierzynski hit .272/.297/.425 last year in Texas, all numbers that are below his career averages of .283/.322/.428, and below the numbers that Jarrod Saltalamacchia put up for the Sox last season (.273/.338/.466).

Production from the catchers at the bottom of the order is only a minor question compared to the void the Sox will be trying to fill at the top of the lineup. It was a financially prudent move to not give Jacoby Ellsbury the seven-year, $153-million contract he got from the Yankees, but it remains to be seen if the Sox offense can be the same kind of force it was last year (MLB-leading 853 runs) without Ellsbury serving as the catalyst. Maybe Grady Sizemore’s amazing comeback story will continue all summer, and maybe Daniel Nava will be a productive leadoff hitter, but it’s unlikely either will be able to reproduce Ellsbury’s impact.

And those aren’t the only questions surrounding the offense. Will Xander Bogaerts live up to the hype and handle the everyday pressure of Fenway in his first full season in the majors? Can Will Middlebrooks find the form he lost last year? Will time finally catch up to David Ortiz?

It says here the answers to all those questions will be positive ones for the Red Sox, which leads us to the bright side of the road for the defending champs. Bogaerts has produced at every level and hit .296/.412/.481 in the playoffs, so it seems likely he’ll meet expectations, even the lofty ones. Middlebrooks showed good signs when he was recalled from Pawtucket at the end of last year and he’s hit the ball hard this spring. And the 38-year-old Ortiz is coming off a .309/.395/.564 year and a World Series MVP, so even if he takes a step pack, Papi will still be Big.

The other good offensive news for the Sox is that they produced those 853 runs last year despite a dip in power from Dustin Pedroia, who played the entire season with a torn ligament in his thumb and slugged .415, compared to his .454 career percentage. Pedroia still had 193 hits and 84 RBI, but he should be even better after some thumb repairs. And if the rest of the lineup produces its expected averages and takes its expected patient approach, Boston’s offense should once again be potent.

But the real reasons for optimism for the Sox can be found in the depths of the starting rotation and the bullpen.

Jon Lester, who will get the opening day nod tomorrow, doesn’t have the career stats of a prototypical ace (3.76 ERA, 1.30 WHIP), but when his team needs to win a game, Lester can deliver. The 30-year-old lefty displayed his big-game goods during the second half of last season and in the playoffs, when he went 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP. That focus carried into spring training as Lester posted a 0.73 ERA in 12.2 innings of work.

John Lackey became the poster boy for redemption and proved his own big-game value during the playoffs when he won a duel with Justin Verlander in the ALCS and worked three World Series games. At 35, Lackey is approaching the end of his career, and he did give up 13 runs in his first 12.1 innings this spring, but his control has been good, he’s in shape, he looked sharp in his last start in Florida and he seems ready to contribute another solid season.

If Lester or Lackey can’t stop a losing streak during the season, the ultra competitive Jake Peavy will welcome the challenge. Peavy doesn’t have the same stuff he did early in his career, but he should be good for another year like the one he had last season – 12-5 with a 4.17 ERA over 144.2 innings. Felix Doubront, on the other hand, is due for an upgrade. The 26-year-old lefty pitched his best during the second half of last season, was outstanding out of the bullpen in the playoffs, and came to spring training in shape (unlike last year).

Then there’s Clay Buchholz, the most talented No. 5 starter in baseball. Of course, Buchholz is only getting the fifth start in an attempt to reduce his workload and keep him healthy. When Buchholz is injury-free, he can pitch like a prototypical ace, as he showed last year when he started the season a sizzling 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA.

It is, however, safe to assume Buchholz won’t stay healthy all year, since he never has during his career, and the Sox have planned for that with the addition of Chris Capuano. The lefty from Springfield, Mass., will start the season in the bullpen, but he can move into the starting rotation if/when necessary.

There’s a similar newly-acquired contingency plan in the bullpen in the form of Edward Mujica, who had 37 saves for St. Louis last year and could take over for Uehara if he’s needed. If he’s not needed, Mujica will team with relievers Tazawa, Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, Brandon Workman and Craig Breslow (when he gets off the 15-day DL) to create an impressive bridge to the ninth inning.

There is a concern that the extra work needed last October will take a toll on the pitching staff this year, but the Sox seem prepared for that, too, with a slew of talented young pitchers in the farm system – Drake Britton, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo and Henry Owens. Those young arms could also be used as trading chips to help solve other problems that might arise during the season.

Boston will surely need some breaks to become the first back-to-back World Series champ since the 1999-2000 Yankees. Manager John Farrell will need a deft touch with his lineup and bullpen, the young players will have to rise to the occasion, and the older veterans will need to stay healthy. But if all those pieces fall into place, these Sox should be in contention all summer. It may not have the miracle feel of last year, but duplicating miracles is a fool’s task.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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