Repeating title on minds of Red Sox

Repeating title on minds of Red Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For so many decades -- eight and a half, to be precise -- the Red Sox could only dream of World Series championships. Now, they win them.

The quest for another one began on Thursday in Fort Myers, Fla., where pitchers and catchers for the defending World Series champions officially reported to Spring Training, hoping that a third title in five seasons is just eight months away.

Are the Red Sox still the team to beat?

"I think so," said Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. "If we're not the team to beat, I'd like to know who is. I think that, like I said before, our No. 1 thing is to stay healthy. If we do that, I don't know who can really compete with us, from a top-to-bottom scale. It's a good situation to be in, that's for sure."

The last image most New Englanders have of the Red Sox is the joyous celebration at the end of Game 4 in Colorado, which wrapped up the team's second World Series championship in four seasons. Just like that, it's already time for the 2008 Red Sox to put their focus toward reaching the pinnacle again.

"I didn't really think about it a lot until I was kind of on my way back here and thought what it meant to me to be a world champ -- it's obviously something you'll always remember," said Papelbon. "Now I'm kind of switching to the role of [trying to be] remembered as a person who could go out there and repeat it. My whole goal now is to go out there and kind of keep this ball rolling and kind of just pick up where we left off."

The truly big games are several months away. But the grunt work toward glory is officially under way at the team's Minor League complex.

Several Sox players took the field on reporting day, even though the first official workout for pitchers and catchers isn't until Saturday.

Ace Josh Beckett fired a 46-pitch side session. Daisuke Matsuzaka reeled off 52 pitches. Relievers Manny Delcarmen, Craig Hansen, Javier Lopez and David Aardsma also threw on the side.

First baseman Kevin Youkilis -- the first member of the starting nine to arrive in camp -- took the field and got in a workout.

There will be physicals on Friday morning, following conditioning workouts in the afternoon. Saturday will be the first of many team workouts this spring.

"[Friday] is even better," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "It's fun to talk about the players, but when you actually get to put your uniform on and get out on the field, it's exciting. And you see the players coming through the door that you haven't seen for a while -- it's a fun time of year."

Position players report on Wednesday, with the first full-squad workout coming two days later.

As always, the workout portion of camp will be held at the Minor League complex, which is just down the road from City of Palms Park.

Once exhibition games begin on Feb. 28, the Red Sox will pack their bags for City of Palms and stay there until March 19, when they'll board a plane for Tokyo for the start of the regular season. The Sox will play two games against the Oakland Athletics on March 25 and 26 in what should be an international showcase.

The Red Sox are excited to return the same core of players that won the World Series last year, though Curt Schilling is out indefinitely with right shoulder woes.

Sure, Schilling's loss will hurt, but the Red Sox are fortunate to have young pitchers like Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz ready to step in.

Last year was nearly a wire-to-wire effort by the Red Sox. They took over first place in the American League East on April 18 and never gave it back. After sweeping the Angels in the AL Division Series, the Sox rallied from 3-1 down against the Indians in the AL Championship Series and then swept the Rockies in the World Series.

Now, the Red Sox will attempt to be baseball's first repeat champions since the Yankees of 1998-2000.

"We're in a very tough division, a very tough league," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "Baseball has a lot of attrition throughout the course of a season. We're going to have to work hard, play well, get contributions from the guys we count on and unexpected sources to have a chance to compete at the highest level."

The one big difference between this Spring Training and past ones is that there will be hardly any new faces.

First baseman Sean Casey is the only established Major Leaguer that the Sox acquired in the offseason, and he'll play a backup role behind Youkilis.

The pitching staff will be led by 20-game winner Beckett and Papelbon, the club's dominant closer. On offense, the Sox still have the fearsome 3-4 combo of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. Catcher and captain Jason Varitek will once again be the undisputed leader of the pitching staff.

Red Sox Nation has also been riveted by the success of the young guys. Dustin Pedroia won the AL Rookie of the Year Award last year, and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury -- because he had only 116 at-bats last season -- will be eligible this year.

Buchholz, right-handed starter Justin Masterson and middle infielder Jed Lowrie should also see plenty of action during Spring Training.

"That said, I think the organization is in a pretty stable place," Epstein said. "We have a talented core at the Major League level with some experience. We have some young players starting to emerge at the Major League level as contributors and we have a very solid and deep farm system. There are 30 organizations right now going into the year facing the same questions we face. Hopefully, eight and a half months from now, we'll look back and think we were as prepared as anybody to address those issues."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.