NL sojourn has Francona tinkering with lineup

NL sojourn has Francona tinkering with lineup

NL sojourn has Francona tinkering with lineup
BOSTON -- Off-day is always a loose word for manager Terry Francona, who tends to spend a large portion of his "down time" preparing for his next opponent. But Thursday figured to be even more time-consuming and thought-provoking than usual.

This is no ordinary road trip the Sox are embarking on. For the first time since 2002, Boston plays nine consecutive games in National League parks. Hence, it will be without the designated hitter for nine days and starting pitchers who seldom break out their bats will be doing just that for a week-and-a-half.

For a Red Sox team that has been red-hot of late -- cooled just slightly in losing two out of three at home to the Padres -- the temporary change in format is less than ideal.

Francona's team has been an offensive machine this season, leading the Majors in batting average (.279), on-base percentage (.353), hits (724), doubles (161), slugging percentage (.450) and OPS (.803).

The slugging Sox have had six games of 14-plus runs and 14-plus hits over their first 75 games, the first time they've achieved that feat in that few games since 1950.

Now the challenge is to keep up that clip while possibly losing a top hitter on a daily basis.

  • 131 wins
  • 121 wins

David Ortiz, who is having his best season in years, is Boston's DH. Francona has already revealed that he doesn't plan on giving first baseman Adrian Gonzalez -- a perennial iron man -- any games off on the trip through Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Houston.

Gonzalez has graciously told Francona that he would start in right field if the team needs him to. Gonzalez's right-field experience consists of one start in 2005, and one Winter League season even before that, when he was trying to improve his outfield skills for an organization (the Texas Rangers) that already had a top-flight first baseman in Mark Teixeira.

By no means will Gonzalez be Boston's regular right fielder on the trip. But there does exist the possibility he could make some spot starts there so Ortiz at least gets some games in at first base and keeps the rust off his big bat. For tonight's opener in Pittsburgh, Ortiz was in the starting lineup.

"Gonzi has been taking some balls out in the outfield. He's very willing to do it," Francona said. "My concerns are a couple of things. One is I don't want David to go 11 days without playing. That's not good for us or for him. If you put Gonzi in right -- that's the one place he says he can play -- you're potentially taking J.D. [Drew] out of the lineup or moving him to left, [and then] we've got guys all over the place."

Ortiz, who is hitting .313 with 17 homers and 48 RBIs, understands the predicament his manager is in and appreciates the selfless offer by Gonzalez.

"Adrian is a team player," Ortiz said. "Whatever he thinks will be the best for this ballclub, he's going to try to encourage that. That's what he's doing. We'll see how that goes. I don't want to have Adrian out there either and [have something] happen. If he gets hurt or whatever, things would just get worse. Tito knows how to take care of it. We'll see. I'm just going to try my best to keep my swing the way I want to."

While Gonzalez, who might be having the best all-around season of any hitter in the Majors, has been durable through the years, does he worry he could risk an injury playing out of position?

"No. I'll do whatever is needed for the team," said Gonzalez. "I know I'm not an outfielder, but if it meant to get Papi in the game, it's definitely something I would do."

Francona is very honest about being caught a little in between on this one.

"Gonzi, if something ever happened to him, I'd catch a lot of [heat]," Francona said. "I don't want to do that. You know what I mean. We'll see. I actually have some anxiety over this one. I want to do what's right, and I've got to try to figure out in my own head what is right."

While not wanting to see his sizzling offense cool off, Francona also doesn't want to compromise his unit defensively.

It is one of the tougher balancing acts he's had in front of him in recent memory.

"If we play that team [with Gonzalez in right and Ortiz at first], that's not our best defensive team," Francona said. "But we have pretty good offensive players and we would certainly shift them around if we had a lead. It's just more than that, too. If we don't play David for 11 days, that's going to kill him. I don't want to do that. There are some things to think about."

When Ortiz doesn't start -- which could wind up being the majority of the games on the trip -- he gives the Red Sox the ultimate weapon as a pinch-hitter.

"I'm always ready for it, [but] I don't like it, though," Ortiz said. "I always try my best. I always let Tito know that I'm ready for any situation he needs me. Whatever happens, happens. It's not like I'm the best pinch-hitter out there."

Big Papi is no Lenny Harris, but the Sox slugger will certainly be a better option in the late innings than Boston's pitchers.

"I don't want to see our starting pitchers hitting," laughed Ortiz. "After I saw Bartolo [Colon] three years ago [get injured] ... but [Tim] Wakefield can swing, [Clay] Buchholz can swing, [Josh] Beckett swings hard just in case he runs into something. [John] Lackey can swing it, too. It will be fun."

Sox lefty Jon Lester, who opens the road trip on Friday night in Pittsburgh, is 0-for-15 lifetime. Beckett, a former National Leaguer, is a .148 hitter (32-for-216) with three homers and 16 RBIs. Lackey is 3-for-35, but looks and feels pretty comfortable at the plate. Wakefield, a former Minor League first baseman, is a .121 hitter (13-for-107) with one homer and four RBIs.

In recent days, Red Sox pitchers going to the batting cage has been a frequent sight.

"I think what we've done is spread it out more," Francona said. "We start out real slow and earlier. We hit off the tee, we dry swing, we hit off the tee -- the progression is really slow. We don't want somebody to get hurt. Not just getting hurt, we don't want them to be sore.

"If you go swing now, tomorrow your side is going to be sore if you don't do it. That's not conducive to helping somebody pitch. We try to balance it. We want to be able to get bunts down. Certainly if there's a runner in scoring position, we'd like for them to have a chance to get a hit. Some of these guys are actually OK. Lackey goes up there, he's going to have a chance. But the biggest thing is not to get hurt.

"On the flip side, we don't want to throw away at-bats quickly. We just try to explain to them what we're looking for."

What the Red Sox are looking for is to keep rolling and keep hitting, despite being down a hitter over the next nine games.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.