The Red Sox continued their winning ways this afternoon at Fenway's home opener. The Sox latest victory extended their winning streak to five games and a 6-1 record - their best start since 1999.
After a shaky first inning - likely the result of Opening Day nerves in his first Fenway start for the Sox - Josh Beckett settled down and pitched like his usual self. Ultimately, Beckett pitched seven innings of three-hit, one-run baseball, leading the Sox to a 5-3 victory over the Blue Jays. Uncharacteristically, the three hits Beckett allowed were exceeded by four walks - three of which came in the first inning, resulting in the sole run he allowed.
But perhaps the most encouraging news was Mike Lowell's 4-for-4 performance, including three doubles in his home debut with the Red Sox. Of all the questions about the Sox offense entering this season, Lowell may have been the most curious, and perhaps the most important. We knew that Kevin Youkilis could hit, or least reach base, Mark Loretta is a career .300 hitter, and Coco Crisp is clearly a player on the rise. Odds are that Trot Nixon will rebound nicely, as long as he stays healthy. The biggest question mark, in my view, was Lowell.
Though coming off a career-worst season, Lowell was an All-Star for three consecutive seasons prior to 2005, a year in which he still won a Gold Glove. Though he struggled with a .236 average last season, he hit .293 the previous year and is a lifetime .272 hitter. And it now appears that he will indeed thrive in the friendly confines of Fenway - the epitome of a hitter's park. The Monster is only 310 feet from home, and Lowell should take ample advantage of it. There's a reason that Lowell has such a big contract -- he earned it. In 2003, he belted 32 homers and 105 RBI. He followed that up in '04 by hitting 27 homers and driving in 85 runs. In fact, Lowell averaged 25 homers and 95 RBI in the five seasons leading up to 2005.
What's most impressive about Lowell's stats in those years is that he was able to be so productive while playing in what is known as a pitcher's park - Dolphins Stadium. Fenway Park, not to mention the tutelage of hitting coach Ron "Papa Jack" Jackson, may already be aiding Lowell's return to form.
The only letdown was the disappointing play of Wily Mo Pena. Clearly a work in progress, the raw-looking Pena was 0-2, including a strike out. Red Sox fans had better get used to it. Hopefully Papa Jack, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz can help Pena polish his hitting skills, particularly his plate discipline and patience. Pena swings at far too many balls out of the strike zone, doing himself no favors. But worse, Pena let a Frank Catalanotto blast bounce out his glove and over the right field wall for a two run homer the eighth. Keith Foulke, who gave up two hits in the inning, was clearly disappointed and his 6.75 ERA will reflect it.
Jonathan Papelbon continued to dominate, retiring all three batters he faced for his fourth save in as many opportunities. In five appearances, Papelbon has allowed a grand total of two baserunners. He's been a dream come true for a bullpen that mostly conjured nightmares last season.
The sold out crowd of 35,491 was the largest to witness a Fenway Park opener. The old record of 35,343 had been established in 1969 against Baltimore. Despite the robust attendance, there was actually room for more. Believe it or not, some ticket holders actually failed to show up for the festivities. With its new capacity, Fenway will now hold 38,805, up from its previous 36,298.
Today also marked the Sox' 227th consecutive sellout, second only in league history to the 455-game run at Cleveland's Jacobs Field (1995-2001). Given the park's increased capacity, the Sox surely will set an attendance record this year for the seventh consecutive season.
And those record crowds are sure to see some great baseball this year. The 2006 Red Sox appear to be all they've been advertised to be. They are long on defense and pitching, and appear to still have enough offense to make them an AL force once again. Best of all, Manny hasn't even found his stroke yet and the club is winning despite this. But Mike Lowell looks poised to do his part, and his offensive production is sure to win fans, as well as the confidence of his teammates.
Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.