Red Sox

Beating the best

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Beating the best

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

After what happened last season, it was hard to take this regular season seriously.

You know, the old Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, Ill whack you below the waist band mentality?

The way the Celtics struggled last winter and then turned it on when it mattered went against everything that wed previously learned about sports. There were some things that were supposed to stand in the way of their success; irreversible, bad habits that were supposed that had the C's programmed to self-destruct. But it never happened, or at least not until the last 20 minutes, and in the end, it left us with a new perspective on the NBA regular season. (Or at least a new perspective on a team with enough credentials to fill its own wing in Springfield.)

If theyre healthy, theyll be fine. Its all about pacing for the playoffs.

The same words the Celtics had recited repeatedly the previous year became the rallying cry for the entire fandom. And thats pretty unbelievable when you think about it. How often do you see that level of trust and understanding, especially in a city like Boston? The Celtics were essentially, preemptively given a pass from the doldrums of an NBA winter.

The deal was:

OK, we know youre good enough to get back to the Finals. We know youre good enough to win. And if the regular season is just a necessary evil, then so be it. Do what you do. Make sure youre ready. In the meantime well just enjoy the ride, celebrate the highs, shrug off the lows and keep counting down until it really matters.

Meanwhile, the team itself never took that approach. They were more fired up and motivated than at any point since 2008. But the pressure around them had been lifted slightly. If they had to pull back the reins at any point to better position themselves (physically) for the playoffs, then that was OK. If they lost to Washington, Detroit or Toronto, it wouldnt be the end of the world. For fans, it just came with the territory. And while that wasnt ideal, if that was the only drawback to an extra year of competing for the title, then it was well worth it. Like Jermaine ONeal; only the exact opposite.

But for the unconditional faith bestowed upon them, there was one thing the Celtics could do. There was a way for them to reward the fans for understanding and make the regular season of perspective a little easier to cope with.

Basically, over the course of the year, there'd be handful of times when the Celtics would have the opportunity to reach down, step up and prove to Boston that their championship team was still there. Thats not to say that that team couldnt show up on a random Tuesday against the Bucks or on a Monday night in Memphis, but for it to really matter, for Boston to really love and trust in that team, it'd have to show up when it mattered most. When they were in a position to turn it up; where fans could watch them at a playoff level in a playoff atmosphere and think, Oh, there they are! Thats fantastic. Now lets get back to pacing for the playoffs.

Sunday afternoon against the Lakers was the latest and greatest example of these Celtics doing their part to ensure that no one waivers in their devotion to what this team can do if healthy for the next five months.

I dont want to make it seem like thats all the Celtics accomplished. I dont want to downplay the victory. CelticsLakers should never be just another example of the Cs going about their business. Given all that was involved, it was an amazing win for Boston.

As far as Sunday afternoons in January go, its almost impossible to be beat. What more could you ask for? A surprise comeback by Delonte West? Rondo posterizing Kobe on a break away? An in-game Brooklyn Decker Cam option on your remote?

Easy, tiger.

A double-digit win in L.A. will always satisfy expectations. Itll turn the grumpiest Celtics fan giddier than Dwight Howard during Saturday morning cartoons. To see the Cs (eventually) play that well, on that floor and against that team, provides a kind of rush that cant be duplicated in Boston sports. Beating L.A. in L.A., and doing in the style the Celtics did with defense, team and intensity vs. Hey, Im Kobe. Me shoot now! just makes you feel good. Better than it did after either of the games against Miami, or the last time against the Magic. In fact, the Heat could trade for Chris Paul, the Magic could move for Carmelo and Deron Williams, and it still wouldnt matter. Nothings as good as beating the Lakers.

At the same time, I dont want to say the win was perfect, either. There are still some issues.

For instance, Rajon Rondo still doesnt have an answer for the Sag-off-Rondo defense. Were in year four that hes been facing it, and it still creates serious problems. I know he finished with 16 assists, and had 15 in the second half, but thats because the Celtics were able to get out in transition and open the game up (plus Kobe wasn't always guarding him). If these two teams meet in the Finals again, there will be times when the transition game is stagnant, and Rondo will be forced to contribute in the half court set while Bryant is guarding him. Right now he cant do it.

But thanks to another big-time, big-game performance by these Celtics, theres still no doubt that they can. In fact, aside from the Christmas Day in Orlando, this team has responded nearly every time they had to. Any opportunity to make a statement, and reward that faith has been seized and delivered upon. And then some.

For now, thats all you can ask for.

And for now, all you can do is keep that perspective. A lot can happen between now and the playoffs. With games coming up against Orlando, the Lakers (again) and Miami, a lot might happen between now and the All-Star Game.

But as long as they're healthy, so will be Boston's spirits.

Although three more big wins certainly wouldn't hurt.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Why the Red Sox should sign not one but two relievers

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Why the Red Sox should sign not one but two relievers

BOSTON — There is a world outside of Giancarlo Stanton. 

Stanton, at this point, simply doesn’t appear likely to end up in Boston. That should feel obvious to those following along, and so should this: it can change. 

But there are other pursuits. Besides their search for a bat or two, the Red Sox have been actively pursuing left-handed relief options. Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is a fast mover, but this year’s market has not been.

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Robbie Ross Jr. and Fernando Abad are both free agents, leaving Robby Scott as the lone incumbent southpaw from last season's primary group. Brian Johnson is bound for the pen, with Roenis Elias as a depth option too.  Still, even if Johnson’s transition pans out, the Sox still have an opening for a late-inning reliever with the departure of free agent Addison Reed. 

Reed is a righty, but between Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, Carson Smith, and Craig Kimbrel, the Sox have more right-handed choices than left. Coming back from surgery, Tyler Thornburg, should be in the mix eventually too, but it's difficult to expect too much from him.

What the Red Sox should do: sign one of each for the bullpen, one righty, and one lefty. And then trade a righty or two. Turn some of that mishmash into an addition elsewhere. Be creative. 

Because inevitably, come midseason, the Sox will want to add another bullpen arm if they sign just one now. Why wait until you have to give up prospect capital when you can just add the piece you want now?

Go get a near-sure thing such as Pat Neshek, a veteran who walks no one and still strikeouts a bunch. At 37 with an outgoing personality, Neshek also brings leadership to a team that is looking for some. He walked just six guys in 62 innings last season. Entering his 12th season in the majors, he’s looking for his first ring.

All these top of the market relievers may be handsomely paid. But relievers are still something of a bargain compared to position players and starting pitchers. One of the key words for this winter should be creativity. If there’s value to be had in the reliever market, capitalize on it. 

Comeback kid Mike Minor, Jake McGee and Tony Watson headline the crop of free agent lefties available. Brad Hand of the Padres could also be had by trade but his market isn’t moving too quickly (and he won’t come cheaply).

Minor, 29, who posted a 2.55 ERA in 2017 after health issues kept him out of the majors in 2015-16, is expected to be paid handsomely. He is also open to the idea of potentially starting if a team is interested in him doing so. The Royals reportedly could give him that shot.

McGee’s American League East experience could be appealing.

He's 31 and had a 3.61 ERA with the Rockies in 2017 and has a 3.15 ERA lifetime. He’s not quite the strikeout pitcher he was earlier in his career — he had an 11.6 K/9 in 2015 — but a 9.1 K/9 is still very strong, particularly when coupled with just 0.6 homers allowed per nine.

For what it’s worth: McGee has also dominated the Red Sox, who have a .125 average, .190 on-base percentage and .192 slugging against him in 117 regular-season plate appearances. 

McGee throws a mid-90s fastball with a low-80s slider. He can operate up in the zone, and he actually has been even more effective against righties than lefties in his career, including in 2017. McGee’s been a closer, too, with 44 career saves.

The Sox had the second-best bullpen in the majors by ERA in 2017, at 3.07. Yet, come the postseason, there wasn’t a sense of great confidence or even a clear shape to the pecking order behind one of the absolute best relievers in the game, Kimbrel. 

Patriots missing Brady, Gronkowski from start of Wednesday's practice

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Patriots missing Brady, Gronkowski from start of Wednesday's practice

FOXBORO -- Tough day in terms attendance at Patriots practice. 

Several starters were missing from the start of the session, including two of the team's most important players, that took place in the rain on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. 

Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan, Marcus Cannon, David Andrews and Patrick Chung were all absent from the start of the practice. 

Hogan (shoulder), Cannon (ankle) and Andrews (illness) were all unable to play against the Raiders last weekend. Chung left the Raiders game briefly with an undiclosed injury but returned later in the game and met with media afterward. The reasons for Brady and Gronkowski's absences are unknown. 

Matthew Slater (hamstring) did not play last weekend in Mexico City, but he was back on the practice field. Newly-acquired defensive lineman Eric Lee -- who took Cassius Marsh's spot on the 53-man roster -- was also present. 

It appeared as though new practice squad return man Bernard Reedy was on the field as well. P-squad defensive lineman Mike Purcell was missing from the session so it looks like he was released in order to make room. 

Finally, Malcolm Mitchell was not on the field for Wednesday's workout. He's eligible to come off of injured reserve and begin practicing, as is defensive lineman Vincent Valentine, but both remain out. 

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