After two weeks of drills, Sox set for spring slate

After two weeks of drills, Sox set for spring slate

After two weeks of drills, Sox set for spring slate
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After two weeks of constant drill work, the Red Sox are ready for the fun part of Spring Training -- playing actual games.

"That part is fun," said second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "You're building up to get ready for the season. It's been a while since we played games, and that's why you put in all the hard work, is to play well during the games. It's going to be fun."

It starts with Saturday's college doubleheader against Northeastern University at 2:35 p.m. ET and Boston College in a 7:05 p.m. game that will also air on MLB.TV.

Grapefruit League play begins with Sunday's 1:35 p.m. home game -- which will also be available on MLB.TV -- against the Twins, with right-hander Josh Beckett set to take the mound.

The art of getting acclimated to game action is always butterfly-inducing, whether you're a rookie trying to make the team or an established star like Pedroia.

"It's your first everything -- first ground ball, first double play," Pedroia said. "You're hitting the ball and seeing it for the first time. All that stuff is weird, and the more reps you get, the more comfortable you get."

Perhaps the dawn of another exhibition season is a little more special for the Red Sox in this particular year, as they desperately want to turn the page from the disastrous finish of 2011.

And the Red Sox also get to christen their state-of-the-art Spring Training facility, JetBlue Park at Fenway South.

"It's the best feeling to put on the uniform and see a team with a different uniform on," said outfielder Darnell McDonald. "The drills and stuff get repetitive. Now the lights come on. It feels like the season is under way after that first game. I know I'm excited. I think everyone else is. I'm looking forward to a good 2012. It's just exciting to be able to go out here and play on this new field and get things going."

And though these are only exhibitions, they will still mark the first time Bobby Valentine has managed the Red Sox in a game situation. In fact, it will be the first time Valentine has managed in the Majors since 2002, when his tenure with the Mets ended.

"I love when the games come up," said Valentine, "but I'm the guy that always feels like we need a little more time to practice. Hopefully we can take the practice into the games a little more and get good at what we're doing. We haven't covered all the things, believe it or not ... We've covered just about everything, but we haven't covered them succinctly enough to really make them game-ready. Hopefully we'll be OK."

Valentine had a little trial run on Thursday, when his team played in a "B" game against the Twins.

"[Tim Bogar] was there as the bench coach doing his thing. I think [first-base coach] Alex [Ochoa] and [third-base coach] Jerry [Royster] and I need a rhythm for what we're going to be doing, and Bogie needs a little rhythm with me also," Valentine said. "It's all necessary stuff."

Within a couple of days, the manager, the coaching staff and the players will be deep into the grind of the Spring Training schedule. The competitions will then start to unfold, and there are several of them for the Red Sox this spring.

Can Mike Aviles emerge from camp as the starting shortstop? Perhaps veteran utility man Nick Punto or highly-touted prospect Jose Iglesias will make it interesting.

Who will emerge as the primary right fielder: Ryan Sweeney or Cody Ross?

Can left fielder Carl Crawford (left wrist surgery) get into exhibition games soon enough that he'll be ready for Opening Day? Crawford might have hit a small obstacle earlier this week when he experienced some stiffness, but it's too early to say if it will impacted his goal of being ready for Detroit on April 5.

Perhaps the stiffest competition will come in the rotation, where there are several candidates in the running for the fifth spot. They include Alfredo Aceves, Aaron Cook, Carlos Silva, Vicente Padilla, Andrew Miller and Felix Doubront, the latter of whom pitches Saturday's nightcap against Boston College.

Then there is Daniel Bard, who badly wants to prove he can transition effectively enough from the bullpen to be a solid fourth starter.

It is during Spring Training that a team begins to form.

"This team is filled with great personalities and good guys and a lot of winners," said Punto. "Hopefully we can prove that we are a contender."

By mid-March, the Red Sox will undoubtedly start to get stir crazy in anticipation of Opening Day, which is April 5 in Detroit.

"The most important thing is that we all get on the same page in Spring Training and play well, and that leading up to Opening Day, we're healthy," Pedroia said.

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.