Red Sox must play small ball

Posted March 08, 2010, at 10:03 p.m.

Terry Francona is about to embark upon his most challenging season as the manager of the Boston Red Sox.

That’s because it will probably require him to leave his comfort zone.

Francona, like the majority of current managers, doesn’t embrace the sacrifice bunt or the hit-and-run. The Red Sox regulars (non-pitchers) had just 17 sacrifice bunts last season.

Francona is enamored with the home run and likes his hitters to always have a green light to swing away other than in definite “take” situations.

But his seventh Red Sox team is different than his previous six because it has been built on defense and pitching.

And he has a number of hitters who strike out a lot: David Ortiz struck out 134 times in 627 at-bats last year, Kevin Youkilis had 125 strikeouts in 588; J.D. Drew had 109 in 539 and Jason Varitek struck out 90 times in 364. Newly-acquired center fielder Mike Cameron struck out 156 times in 544 at-bats last year.

So it would behoove Francona to try to utilize the bunt and hit-and-run to manufacture runs and reduce strikeouts in case they have the power outage we anticipate.

Cameron has stolen 17 or more bases 11 times over the past 13 seasons although he had just seven a year ago. Third baseman Adrian Beltre, another newcomer, has stolen at least 11 bases three times over the last four years.

And, of course, Jacoby Ellsbury had 70 steals in 82 attempts in 2009 and Dustin Pedroia had 20 in 28 tries.

A team that is a threat to bunt forces the opposing team’s first and third basemen to play in and that opens up more hitting space in the infield.

The two teams that met in the AL championship series last year had 41 (Angels) and 28 (Yankees) sacrifice bunts a year ago.

If it’s good enough for them, it should be good enough for a Red Sox team that will be involved in a lot of close games.

Runs will be precious.

The hit-and-run gives opponents yet another concern and keeps them guessing. It requires bat control and a lot of these free swingers could use improved bat control.

The Red Sox will have a lineup loaded with players who can go from first to third on a base hit which is often the by-product of a well-placed grounder through the infield.

— Larry Mahoney

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Second-tier signings won’t help Patriots

The start of the National Football League’s free agency period has produced mixed results for the New England Patriots.

Coach Bill Belichick has reached into owner Robert Kraft’s checkbook to re-sign nose tackle Vince Wilfork, pass rusher Tully Banta-Cain and offensive guard Stephen Neal.

But while the Patriots have been focused on retaining key parts, AFC East rivals have added key components as they try to catch an increasingly vulnerable New England franchise.

The Miami Dolphins strengthened their defense by signing free agent linebacker Karlos Dansby from the Arizona Cardinals. The New York Jets added Antonio Cromartie from San Diego to pair with Darrelle Revis at cornerback, giving Rex Ryan’s club one of the strongest secondaries in the league.

New England still has some in-house signings to consider, particularly running back Kevin Faulk, defensive end Jarvis Green and cornerback Leigh Bodden. While Faulk and Green are more likely to return, Bodden may end up getting a bigger contract elsewhere.

That would leave the Pats with one more hole to fill in an already shaky secondary, to go with needed upgrades at wide receiver, tight end, linebacker and running back.

The Patriots reportedly sought defensive end Julius Peppers and wideout Anquan Boldin in free agency, but it seemed obvious even before the free agency period began that the team would not come up with the big bucks to sign either of those stars — particularly after getting burned by Adalius Thomas and with the uncertain future of the labor agreement between the NFL and its players union.

New England now is pursuing Buffalo’s Josh Reed, who at age 29 was Buffalo’s third receiver last season behind Terrell Owens and Lee Evans, making 27 catches for 291 yards.

Such second-tier signings may not be enough.

New England does have four of the first 53 picks (Nos. 22, 44, 47 and 53) in what is seen as a deep college draft, but the draft in this team’s case generally hasn’t produced a ton of instant fixes, in part because of its generally low picks.

With Tom Brady turning 33 before the start of the 2010 season, how much longer will this Patriots’ window of opportunity exist?

If you’re the Patriots’ brass, it’s time to live in the now. Hopefully it isn’t too late.

— Ernie Clark

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