Defending the crown

The Baltimore Sun

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona has been through this before.

He experienced it three years ago, after his club vanquished 86 years of frustration and ghosts with a World Series title in 2004. The next year, the Red Sox won 95 games and made the postseason but were swept by the Chicago White Sox in the American League Division Series.

There was no two-peat. No annual parade in Boston.

"People say, 'Do you know how hard it is to repeat?' " Francona says. "Well, do you know hard it is to win? It's hard enough to win [one]."

Francona said he thought this offseason about the end of 2004, about how his players were practically rock stars for the entire winter and spring while preparing to defend their crown.

"I wasn't entirely comfortable the whole spring. There was a lot of [stuff] going on," Francona said. "In the end, I remember thinking I need to have more trust in our players."

The major difference between this group of Red Sox and the ones that won in 2004 is continuity.

After the 2004 season, the Red Sox allowed several key players - such as starters Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe and shortstop Orlando Cabrera - to leave as free agents. This offseason, they re-signed their most important pending free agent, third baseman Mike Lowell. Nearly every other contributing player returns this season.

"I think we are a little bit more stable as an organization in a lot of different ways," said Boston general manager Theo Epstein, the architect of both of those clubs. "We didn't have to stress free-agent players like we had to do in '04. Our minor league system is a lot more established, deeper and more talented than it was in '04."

What's scary about this version of the Red Sox is that there seems to be a perfect mix between old and young.

For years, the offense has relied on veterans such as David Ortiz, 32, Manny Ramirez, 35, Jason Varitek, 35, and more recently Lowell, 34. But now they also have Kevin Youkilis, 29, Dustin Pedroia, 24, and Jacoby Ellsbury, 24.

For much of the decade, the pitching staff was anchored by Curt Schilling, 41, Tim Wakefield, 41, and Mike Timlin, 42. That trio now takes a back seat to Josh Beckett, 27, Daisuke Matsuzaka, 27, and Jonathan Papelbon, 27. And a new wave of pitchers, such as Clay Buchholz, 23, Jon Lester, 24, and Manny Delcarmen, 26, are coming on.

"In '04, we had to address getting old in a hurry," Epstein said. "It made sense to move on with the organization."

Walk into this year's clubhouse during spring training and there is no talk about repeats. There is no back-patting, no shenanigans. It's very businesslike. There are no traces of a World Series hangover.

"We put all our time and effort into trying to [win the World Series], and once it came through, it was kind of a relief because we worked so hard," Pedroia said. "I didn't really have time to sit back and talk about how great we are. I don't think anybody on this team would do that."

More than anything, what the Red Sox will have to overcome to repeat are the obstacles that face every team each season: injuries and improved competition.

This spring, they placed Schilling on the 60-day disabled list with a shoulder/tendon injury. He'll be lost until at least the All-Star break. And Beckett, a 20-game winner last year, had an abbreviated spring because of back spasms.

If the Red Sox slip, plenty of teams are prepared to jump to the top of the AL.

"It is a real [gantlet] out there, and it's just a matter of surviving," Epstein said. "The team that can stay the healthiest survives and makes the playoffs."

Varitek, the team's captain and one of only four current Red Sox players to appear in both the 2004 and 2007 World Series for Boston, said comparing those teams is like "apples to oranges to be honest with you. So you just have to focus on what this team has this spring and then focus on what we need to do to push out into our first game."

He dismisses the idea that teams are gunning for them now that they are champions. After all, he says, they are the Red Sox. Teams are always gunning for them. Still, deep down, they know because of what they did last year and given that their roster is basically unchanged, they have to be considered the team to beat in 2008.

"I'm not gonna say it," Ortiz said, smiling. "But hopefully, that's the way it is."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Lining up

Batting order

Pos. Name

CF Jacoby Ellsbury

2B Dustin Pedroia

DH David Ortiz

LF Manny Ramirez

3B Mike Lowell

RF J.D. Drew

1B Kevin Youkilis

C Jason Varitek

SS Julio Lugo

Rotation

RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka

LHP Jon Lester

RHP Tim Wakefield

RHP Clay Buchholz

RHP *Josh Beckett

* Will start season on DL

AL East this week

Tomorrow: New Yankees manager Joe Girardi discusses stepping in for his mentor, Joe Torre, and why he didn't take the Orioles job last June.

Friday: The Blue Jays think they can be good enough to compete for the divisional crown - if they can stay healthy.

Saturday: Tampa Bay has a new name, new uniforms and an old closer, Troy Percival, who is having a blast with his young teammates.

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