Yairo Muñoz among Red Sox’ most impressive performers early on in spring training

In his first traditional spring training with the Red Sox, Yairo Munoz is off to a hot start.

Following a 1-for-3 performance against the Rays on Tuesday that was highlighted a hard-hit two-run home run to the opposite field, the 26-year-old came off the bench as a pinch-runner in Wednesday’s contest against the Twins and collected another RBI by lining a run-scoring single in his only trip to the plate in the sixth inning of an eventual 14-6 victory for the Sox.

Through his first four Grapefruit League games of the year, Munoz is 5-for-9 (.555) at the plate with that one homer, one double, and four RBI while playing left field and third base.

The Dominican native is coming into the spring without a spot on Boston’s 40-man roster, meaning he is one of 33 non-roster invitees currently at big-league camp in Fort Myers.

The Sox outrighted Munoz off their 40-man roster in December. That decision was met with much surprise considering the fact that the utilityman impressed over the course of the final month of the 2020 campaign and the team had just signed him a one-year contract for the 2021 season.

After spending a healthy chunk of July and the entirety of August at the club’s alternate training site in Pawtucket, Munoz was called up by Boston on August 31 and made his team debut on September 1.

From that point forward, the right-handed hitter — listed at 5-foot-11 and 200 lbs. — slashed an impressive .333/.333/.511 to go along with one home run, five doubles, four RBI, and two stolen bases over 12 games played before a lower back strain prematurely ended his year on September 19.

Given the fact he performed well and proved more than capable of playing multiple defensive positions (was worth positive-4 defensive runs saved in left field), it, again, was somewhat shocking to see Munoz stripped of his 40-man roster spot three months ago.

Having said that, it might be even more shocking that the ex-St. Louis Cardinal managed to clear waivers without getting claimed by another organization beforehand.

At just 26 years old, Munoz is still relatively young, under team control through 2024, and has one minor-league option remaining. All while just a few years removed from being one of the top prospects in the Athletics’ farm system, which is the organization he originally signed with back in 2012.

In Chaim Bloom’s tenure as chief baseball officer thus far, the Red Sox have clearly placed an emphasis on bringing in — whether by trade, waiver claim, or free agency — versatile players who can be put to the test on the field. Christian Arroyo, Enrique Hernandez, and Marwin Gonzalez are among those on the team’s projected Opening Day roster who fit that mold.

While Munoz may have taken a step back this offseason and still has some work to do in order to crack Boston’s Opening Day roster, he seems to fit that mold, too.

At the end of the day, it’s as MassLive.com’s Christopher Smith wrote earlier Wednesday: “The Red Sox are lucky Yairo Munoz remains in the organization.”

Smith also wrote that Munoz “is one of the top outfield depth options heading into 2021. He will play for Boston at some point this season.”

(Picture of Yairo Munoz: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Garrett Richards makes Red Sox debut as sloppy defense leads to 5-3 loss at hands of Braves

The Red Sox opened the home portion of their Grapefruit League schedule on Monday by falling to the Braves by a final score of 5-3 in seven innings at JetBlue Park.

Newcomer Garrett Richards, who signed a one-year, $10 million deal with Boston last month, made his first start of the spring for Boston in this one.

Working two “full” innings, the veteran right-hander surrendered two earned runs on three hits and two walks to go along with one strikeout on the afternoon.

Both of those Atlanta runs came in the top half of the first, when Richards managed to record just one out before the rest of the inning was called off for pitch count purposes.

The 32-year-old was able to rebound in the second inning, however, as he retired the Braves’ 7-8-9 hitters in order to end his day on a more positive note.

Ultimately hit with the losing decision in what was his Red Sox debut, Richards will look to pick up where he left off in his next time out, which should come against the Braves once again on Sunday.

In relief of Richards, left-hander Kyle Hart, a non-roster invitee, came on for the third and yielded two runs — both of which were unearned thanks to a Bobby Dalbec fielding error — on a pair of walks and a two-run single.

From there, right-hander Kevin McCarthy — another non-roster invitee — worked a scoreless top half of the fourth, while right-handed pitching prospects Thad Ward and Connor Seabold combined to toss a pair of shutout frames in the fifth and sixth innings.

Zac Grotz, a right-hander, was responsible for the seventh, and he gave up one unearned run before being injuring his elbow on a pitch that required him to leave the game immediately.

All in all, Sox pitchers allowed five total runs, but only two of those runs were earned due to sloppy defensive play that resulted in five errors being committed; one from Dalbec, one from Ward, one from Marwin Gonzalez, and two from Jeter Downs.

On the other side of things, the Red Sox starting lineup featured the likes of Christian Arroyo, Gonzalez, J.D. Martinez, Dalbec, Michael Chavis, Yairo Munoz, Cesar Puello, Jeisson Rosario, and Jett Bandy.

Matched up against right-hander Huascar Ynoa — one of the top pitching prospects in Atlanta’s farm system — Bandy kicked off the scoring for his side by drawing a bases-loaded walk with two outs in the bottom of the second.

Fast forward to the fourth, and the bases were loaded once more. This time with one out as Rosario, one of the two prospects Boston acquired from the Padres in the Mitch Moreland trade, came to the plate to face Touki Toussaint.

Rosario managed to pick up an RBI, but only by dribbling a grounder to the right side of the infield that gave Chavis enough time to score from third and make it a 4-2 contest in favor of Atlanta.

In the seventh, a leadoff double off the bat of catching prospect Kole Cottam resulted in another Boston run crossing the plate when Jonathan Arauz grounded into a 4-6-3 double play.

That sequence cut the Sox’ deficit to two runs at 5-3, and it allowed the tyring run to come to the plate in the form of Roldani Baldwin, who stuck out against Jasseel De La Cruz to put this one to bed.

Some notes from this one:

Nick Yorke, the Red Sox’ first-round pick in the 2020 draft, made his spring debut on Monday. The 18-year-old infielder went 1-for-1 off the bench with a walk and a fifth-inning single off Braves reliever A.J. Minter.

Ward and Seabold, ranked by Baseball America as the No. 10 and No. 11 prospects in Boston’s farm system, were probably the two most impressive pitchers the Red Sox threw out there on Monday.

Next up for the Red Sox, they’ll host the reigning American League champion Tampa Bay Rays at JetBlue Park on Tuesday afternoon.

Left-hander Martin Perez will get the ball for Boston, and he will be opposed by veteran righty Michael Wacha.

Garrett Whitlock, Joel Payamps, Ryan Weber, Josh Winckowski and Andrew Politi are also expected to pitch for the Sox.

First pitch Tuesday is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. eastern time on ESPN, which means we are in for nine innings of baseball since this will be a nationally-televised game.

(Picture of Garrett Richards: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Red Sox’ Nick Pivetta moved to Fort Myers this offseason to work out at team’s complex and familiarize himself with organization

In his first offseason as a member of the Red Sox organization, right-hander Nick Pivetta moved to Fort Myers in order to be closer to the club’s Fenway South complex.

Put another way, rather than return home for the offseason as many players across baseball do, the 28-year-old opted to travel to southwest Florida and familiarize himself with his new club.

“We talked about it as the season was ending last year, and he was telling me he was thinking about coming down here and setting up shop because he didn’t have anywhere else he needed to be,” Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush said of Pivetta earlier Saturday. “I think it’s great. It gave him a chance to be around the staff, to be around the complex, to get his work in consistently.

“Look, it’s not for everybody,” he added. “Some guys like being able to go home, some guys like being here. But for him this winter, it was perfect. Because it gave him access to the personnel, the equipment, and the space that he needed, and he took advantage of it.”

The Red Sox originally acquired Pivetta — as well as right-handed pitching prospect Connor Seabold — from the Phillies back in August for right-handed relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree.

Pivetta arrived in Boston in late August, but rather than make his team debut right away, the club optioned the 6-foot-5, 214 pounder to their alternate training site in Pawtucket, where he would stay for about a month before getting called up on September 22.

In his first two starts in a Red Sox uniform — which came against the Orioles and Braves — Pivetta impressed by yielding just two earned runs on eight hits and five walks to go along with 13 total strikeouts over 10 total innings pitched.

“Nick was great last year,” Bush said. “Obviously he performed really well when he came up. After the trade, we kept him at the alternate site for a little while, and it gave the other people in the organization a chance to get to know him. I talked to him plenty of times over the phone before he came up. So I think the relationship started building pretty early last year, and we carried it through those last few starts at the end of the year.”

Ending the 2020 campaign on a high note, Pivetta headed down to Fort Myers and continued to put the work in to improve his craft.

“He’s worked very hard this offseason,” said Bush. “I was in regular contact with him once or twice a week. He was sending me videos as he was throwing his bullpens leading up to camp. He’s worked very hard. He’s dedicated himself to making himself a complete big-league pitcher and being able to stick in the big-leagues.”

As he prepares to embark upon his first full season with the Red Sox in 2021, Pivetta finds himself in a somewhat precarious position given the fact he is out of minor-league options. That means that if Boston wanted to send down the British Columbian hurler to the minors, they would have to remove him from their 40-man roster and expose him to waivers in the process of doing so.

With that in mind, it would appear that Pivetta, who primarily works with a four-seam fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup, has the inside edge on a spot on the Sox’ Opening Day starting rotation since other potential candidates — like Tanner Houck — have minor-league options remaining.

Even considering that point, though, the former fourth-round draft pick will still have to prove his worth and compete for said starting rotation spot over the next few weeks.

“I think he’s very excited for the opportunity,” Bush stated. “He’s going out there to compete for a spot, and he’s worked really hard for it. So I’m excited for him. I’m excited to see him go out there and pitch, compete, and show that the hard work he put in was worth it. It’s going to pay off.”

Pivetta, who turned 28 earlier this month, will make his spring debut on the road against the Twins on Wednesday.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Friday during an appearance on WEEI’s Ordway, Merloni, and Fauria that S0x starters will each work two innings in their first starts of the spring and three innings in their second starts.

(Picture of Nick Pivetta: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Red Sox’ Alex Verdugo prefers hitting in batting cage to on-field batting practice: ‘It keeps my swing more locked in’

If fans were allowed on the premises of the Red Sox’ Fenway South complex in Fort Myers this spring, one thing they may notice while wandering around the many backfields is that Alex Verdugo is not out there taking batting practice while other position players are.

“Here, it’s not mandatory to go outside and hit,” Sox manager Alex Cora explained on Tuesday. “[Verdugo] did everything inside. We talked about his preparation and all of that. He stays away from the field for the first few just to do his cage work and hit off the machine. It’s part of his preparation, but he’s always out there for the defensive part of it.”

On the surface, it may seem odd that the 24-year-old outfielder does not participate in on-field batting practice and prefers to take his swings in the batting cages, but it turns out he actually has a sound reason as to why that is the case.

“I don’t like to hit on the field as much,” Verdugo said when speaking with reporters via Zoom on Thursday. “I think it’s good to occasionally see where the ball’s going, see how it’s flying. I think it’s good. But, me personally, through the last few years, I’ve found that the cage just does it better for me, man. It keeps my swing more locked in. It keeps me really focused up the middle — not trying to lift, not trying to do anything — just hit a nice, consistent line drive up the middle.

Utilizing that approach, as well as the mindset that opposing pitchers are seemingly throwing harder than ever, leads Verdugo to believe that cage work does a better job of simulating the in-game experience than batting practice does.

“Especially when you have a lot of guys throwing hard nowadays, I just feel like for me, seeing some hard velo in the cage is more realistic than seeing nice, easy BP on the field and trying to lift,” the left-handed hitter said. “Obviously, I can go out there and hit on the field and keep a professional approach and do my line drives, but I just like the cage better.”

In his inaugural season with Boston after coming over from the Dodgers last February, Verdugo impressed to the tune of a .308/.367/.478 slash line to go along with six home runs, 16 doubles, and 15 RBI over 53 games played (221 plate appearances).

The former second-round draft pick managed to stay relatively healthy throughout the duration of the year, but that likely would not have been the case had the 2020 season started at time.

That being due to the fact that, upon getting traded from Los Angeles last year, Verdugo was dealing with a stress fracture in his lower back, which at the time resulted in discomfort whenever he swung a bat.

While the Arizona native may be fully recovered from that ailment now, back injuries are nothing to mess around with, especially for a player with a limited history of them.

“I think if I do cage and BP on the field, the workload starts increasing, the number of swings start increasing,” said Verdugo. “For me, it’s going to be a long year. It’s going to be a long year trying to stay healthy through the whole year. If I’m feeling locked in and I’m feeling like I’m where I need to be and cage is enough, then there’s no reason to try to push it or try to go do something just for people to see me do it. I’m getting my work in, and I know what I need to be ready for April 1.”

(Picture of Alex Verdugo: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Richards to start first two games of spring for Red Sox

After announcing on NESN Wednesday night that Nathan Eovaldi would be starting the Red Sox’ Grapefruit League opener against the Twins on Sunday, manager Alex Cora provided more details on what went into that decision earlier on Friday.

“It’s just the progression,” Cora said when speaking with reporters via Zoom. “It’s his turn to pitch on Sunday. Obviously, there’s a thought process, but it’s his turn to pitch. That’s it.”

Eovaldi, who turned 31 earlier this month, said over the weekend that he feels good as he prepares to embark upon his third full season with Boston.

The veteran right-hander is coming off a truncated 2020 campaign in which he posted a 3.72 ERA and 3.87 FIP over just nine starts and 48 1/3 innings pitched on account of being hampered with a right calf strain in August.

Arm-wise, though, Eovaldi is holding up just fine, and he figures to open the 2021 season as Boston’s No. 2 starter.

And not that it means much, but last spring, the Texas native put together eight scoreless innings while scattering just four hits and one walk to go along with 12 strikeouts over three Grapefruit League outings.

Cora has yet to reveal his starting lineup for Sunday’s contest against Minnesota, but he did say that Rafael Devers will play third, Enrique Hernandez will play short, Christian Arroyo will play second, Bobby Dalbec will play first, and Christian Vazquez will catch.

The starting outfield for that day has yet to be determined.

Following Eovaldi in the Sox’ early spring rotation will be fellow right-hander Garrett Richards, who gets the nod to start against the Braves and make his Red Sox debut at JetBlue Park on Monday.

“Stuff-wise, for me, he was one of the best in the league,” Cora recently said of Richards’ 2020 season — in which he produced a 4.03 ERA over 14 outings (10 starts) and 51 1/3 innings of work — with the Padres. “He’s been hurt, but what I saw last year with the Padres was eye-opening. I’m glad that he’s with us. This is a guy that when we talked to him during the offseason, he feels that there’s more. For how veteran he is and his age, he hasn’t wasted too many bullets, right? Because he’s been hurt.”

Assuming he stays healthy this spring, the 32-year-old Richards figures to open the season as Boston’s No. 3 starter behind Eovaldi.

MassLive.com’s Chris Cotillo notes that “Cora has been impressed with how far along both Eovaldi and Richards are” so far this spring.

“Every year is something different, and medical-wise, we mapped it out,” said the Sox skipper. “It’s not that we’re going to rush these guys into pitching eight innings right away, but they’re in a good spot.”

Sunday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Twins will not be televised, but Monday’s game against the Braves will be on NESN.

As a matter of fact, here is a full list of all the Red Sox’ spring training games NESN will be broadcasting in March.

In total, the Sox are slated to play 29 Grapefruit League games against the Braves, Orioles, Pirates, Rays, and Twins between February 28 and March 30.

(Picture of Nathan Eovaldi: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

New Podding the Red Sox episode: MLB.com’s Ian Browne joins the show

On this week’s installment of Podding the Red Sox: A BloggingtheRedSox.com Podcast, I am joined by MLB.com’s Ian Browne, who covers the Red Sox for the site and has been doing so since 2002.

Among the topics Ian and I discussed were his experience so far in Fort Myers while covering Red Sox spring training, how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will affect Grapefruit League play and the regular season this year, how Jackie Bradley Jr.’s free agency is going, where Tanner Houck will start the 2021 season, who will emerge as Alex Cora’s closer, and much more!

The episode is available to listen to on iTunes and Spotify, among other platforms.

Thanks to Ian for taking some time out of his busy spring training schedule (and putting up with shoddy hotel Wi-Fi) to have a conversation with me. You can follow him on Twitter by clicking here, and you can check out his work for MLB.com by clicking here.

Thank you for listening and we will see you next time! Please make sure to subscribe and leave a five-star review if you can!

(Picture of JetBlue Park: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Red Sox’ Alex Verdugo discusses challenges of playing center field at Fenway Park

As Opening Day draws ever closer, it looks more and more like Alex Verdugo will be the Red Sox’ everyday centerfielder to start off the 2021 season.

Jackie Bradley Jr. remains on the open market, and while a reunion between the Gold Glove outfielder and the Sox cannot be ruled out at this point, it appears that the club is confident that Verdugo is more than capable of taking over in center.

During a televised workout at JetBlue Park on Wednesday night, the 24-year-old spoke with NESN’s Tom Caron and Hall of Fame outfielder Jim Rice. Among other things, the two sides discussed the challenges involved in playing center field at Fenway Park.

“The challenge is you got a lot of space,” Verdugo said. “Right-center is 420′, and we got some weird dimensions in the walls. Like where the bullpen is, it kind of cuts in a little bit.”

Since making his major-league debut with the Dodgers in 2017, Verdugo has logged 556 1/3 innings in center field, only eight of which came with the Red Sox last season during a game against the Marlins in Miami in September.

When he wasn’t playing center that one time in 2020, the former second-round draft pick saw the majority of his playing time come in right field (246 2/3 innings) with 167 1/3 innings in left mixed in there as well. And while he’s never played a professional inning in center at Fenway, Verdugo seems ready for the challenge ahead.

“For me, it’s the same as going into road parks, all that,” he said. “You just got to get out there and get to the warning track, feel it out, and take a couple of balls. You just get used to it that way. For me, it’s, ‘Be the person I am, play the game that I play, and get the jumps that I know I can.’ And then I’ll be able to cover the ground out here and hopefully — these gap-to-gap balls — cut them off and hopefully get some people off trying to extend the base or something.”

In response, Rice, who spent the entirety of his 16-year Hall of Fame career with the Sox and appeared in over 1,000 games at Fenway Park while doing so, offered Verdugo some advice.

“You can helm the gap-to-gap, but I think the key thing here is to worry about the wall more than anything else,” Rice said in regards to the Green Monster in left field. “If you look at your left fielder, anything to your left fielder’s left is going to come back to him. Anything over his head to his left is going to go towards right field. So those are the only angles that you really got to worry about out there.”

“Definitely. Obviously you know, you played out here way longer than I have,” responded Verdugo. “It’s just, once you learn the angles and know how they bounce off in certain spots, it’s not too tough.”

Looking back at his final season with Los Angeles in 2019, the left-handed throwing Verdugo played 61 games and accrued 475 2/3 innings in center field that year.

Over the course of those 61 contests in center, the Arizona native was worth positive-3 defensive runs saved while posting an ultimate zone rating (UZR) of 1.1, which translates to an UZR of 3.6 over 150 defensive games, per FanGraphs.

According to Baseball Savant, Verdugo ranked 33rd among qualified major-league center fielders in 2019 in regards to outs above average (0). In other words, by that particular metric, he was average at that position two years ago.

Late last week, Red Sox manager Alex Cora stressed how important it would be for his team to improve defensively this coming season.

Verdugo, seemingly taking over for one of, if not the best defensive center fielder in team history, will likely play a key role in how much Boston’s defensive efforts improve in 2021.

(Picture of Alex Verdugo: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Red Sox’ Alex Cora says team has to be better defensively in 2021: ‘That’s the bottom line’

During his re-introductory press conference back in November, one of the things that Red Sox manager Alex Cora emphasized was that his team needed to catch up to the speed of the game heading into the 2021 season.

“As a manager, as a coaching staff, I think spring training is going to be a lot different than ’18, ’19,” Cora said in the fall. “I do believe we have to catch up with the speed of the game. You look around and you look at the Padres, you look at the Rays, you look at the Dodgers and how athletic they are and how fast the game is. We have to catch up with that.

“It starts in the offseason, obviously, with workouts, and then we get to spring training,” he added. “It’s not going to be what you saw in ’18, ’19, kind of like building up, building up. Yeah, we’re going to build up, of course, so we don’t get hurt. But, at the same time I think the drills are going to be more dynamic. It’s going to be more game-time stuff, and I think they’re going to have fun doing that. And if we do that and we catch up with the speed of the division and the other teams, we’re going to be in a good spot.”

A little more than three months later, and Cora and Co. are already implementing these dynamic changes into their spring training drills at the Fenway South complex in Fort Myers. The Sox skipper said as much when speaking with reporters earlier Friday morning.

“Certain fields are dedicated for defense only,” Cora said via Zoom. “With the guidelines, we have to split them up. So, Fields 1 and 2 are going to be for infielders. Field 1 is going to be only for offense. Field 2 is going to be like a defensive lab. So they’re going to have machines, they’re going to be doing drills, everything is going to be defense. Fields 3 and 4 are going to be for outfielders. Same thing: One of the fields is going to be only for defense, the other one for offense. And for offense, too, they’re going to have cameras and they’re going to have Rapsodo and they’re going to have machines.

“It’s a way to get them up to what I want,” continued Cora. “And at the same time, with everything that is going on, to keep their minds away from the obstacles. Like I said yesterday, we’re lucky to be here. We’re lucky to be working, playing this game. I think we’re going to be more efficient as far as the work. We’re going to have a lot of stuff going on, which is cool.”

Cora added that additional fields will be reserved for pitchers and catchers, while newly-added turf close to the Red Sox clubhouse can be used for catching and infield drills and the batting cages can also be used for defensive work now that some nets have been taken down.

“It’s a pretty cool facility,” he opined. “You have to be open-minded, you have to be creative. We’re doing that and I think that’s going to help us to improve and get better.”

Aside from the COVID-19 protocols put in place by Major League Baseball for spring training facilities in Arizona and Florida, the driving force behind the Sox changing things up at Fenway South is to make defense more of a priority.

That being the case because over the last two seasons, both of which they failed to qualify for the postseason, Boston has put up rather pedestrian numbers.

They rank eighth in the American League in errors (133), seventh in fielding percentage (.984), ninth in defensive runs saved (-26), and sixth in ultimate zone rating (8.3) since 2019, per FanGraphs.

“We have to be better defensively. We have to be better defensively,” Cora said emphatically. “No doubt about it. That’s something championship teams do. I said, we have to be better than ’18 defensively, better than ’19, better than ’20. This is not about range factor or all that stuff that people measure, which is important. As far as first steps and angles going toward the ball, I’m going to challenge them to be better.”

The additions of versatile veterans like Enrique Hernandez and Marwin Gonzalez should aid the Sox on the defensive side of things, but the club will still be banking on players like Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Michael Chavis, Bobby Dalbec, and Christian Vazquez to pick up things on their end as well.

“We’re looking for these guys to improve their defense,” said Cora. “Raffy, Xander, Bobby at first base, Michael, Christian. We have to be better defensively. That’s the bottom line.”

(Picture of Alex Cora: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Red Sox release revised Grapefruit League schedule

The Red Sox were originally slated to open Grapefruit League play against the Pirates on February 27, but their spring training schedule has since been revised.

Per a team release, the Sox will now kick off their slate of exhibition games on February 28 against the Twins at Hammond Stadium, and instead of playing just about every other Grapefruit League team, they will only be playing the Twins, Braves, Orioles, Pirates and Rays.

That being the case because all five of those teams’ spring training complexes are located within close proximity to JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, and “to reflect the recommendations suggested by medical experts and infectious disease specialists, Major League Baseball has regionalized the matchups between teams to limit travel.”

By the time spring training comes to an end in late March, the Red Sox will have hopefully played 29 games in a span of 31 days, though the rules for those games will be quite relaxed as part of MLB’s health and safety protocols related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As noted by MassLive.com’s Chris Cotillo, games between February 27 and March 13 can be played as five- or seven-inning games, as long as the managers agree, while games on or after March 4 will be scheduled as nine innings but managers can agree to shorten them to seven if they so choose.

In total, Boston is scheduled to play 15 of its Grapefruit League contests at JetBlue Park and 14 of them on the road in Bradenton, Fort Myers, North Port, Port Charlotte, and Sarasota.

The team plans on having fans in the stands for home games, though only at a limited capacity to allow for proper social distancing measures. From the aforementioned release:

“The Red Sox will implement appropriate physical distancing and safety protocols that would allow fans to return in a limited capacity for 2021 Spring Training exhibition games by operating JetBlue Park at approximately 24 percent of its normal capacity. All tickets will be sold in physically distanced ‘pods’ comprised primarily of 2-4 seats that will allow for at least six feet between groups. Season Ticket Holders will be offered the first opportunity to attend exhibition games and additional tickets may go on sale to the general public depending on availability. All day games at JetBlue Park will start at 1:05 p.m., and all night games will start at 6:05 p.m.”

For the Red Sox’ full 2021 spring training and regular season schedule, click here.

(Picture of JetBlue Park: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Red Sox’ Matt Barnes on challenges 2021 season could present: ‘Guys know exactly what to expect. That adjustment period of a pandemic is over’

It goes without saying that the 2020 Major League Baseball was unlike any in the sport’s history on account of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the United States

Limited to just 60 regular season games with no fans in the stands and plenty of health and safety protocols, players opting out, outbreak scares, and a postseason bubble, the 2020 season being completed was no sure thing.

The season did end on schedule, however, and nearly six months later, players are once again preparing to embark on another campaign that will surely be affected by the pandemic one way or the other.

This time around, though, the players at least have some familiarity with the coronavirus and the protocols it has created working in their favor. That was not the case at all last summer.

“I think one of the hard things about last year was there was so much uncertainty with the pandemic,” Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes told WEEI’s Will Flemming during the team’s live Truck Day stream earlier Monday afternoon. “Going into the season this year, guys know exactly what to expect. That adjustment period of a pandemic is over. Guys are anxious. Guys are excited.”

The Red Sox are slated to begin spring training next week, with pitchers and catchers reporting to the JetBlue Park complex on February 17 and full squad workouts starting on February.

Among the players the 30-year-old Barnes has seen so far are Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, Darwinzon Hernandez, Martin Perez, and Nick Pivetta.

Boston’s first Grapefruit League game will come against the Pirates in Fort Myers on February 27. Fans will be allowed to attend games at JetBlue, but the ballpark will only be operating at 24% capacity to allow for proper social distancing measures.

Even with those limits in mind, having fans in the stands should serve as a dose of normalcy for players such as Barnes, who experienced the entirety of the 2020 season in empty ballparks — including Fenway Park — since the Red Sox did not make it to the postseason.

“Fenway’s a special place to play, it really is,” said Barnes. “From just getting to go out to Fenway Park, where so many greats have had the opportunity to play and win world championships… When you see it empty, it’s just different. It’s just not the same. One of the things that gives us an edge at home is our fans and their ability to be loud and make it an intimidating place to play for opposing teams. I’m hoping that we can get as many fans as we can safely this year. I don’t know what the plan is for that, but the fans are definitely missed. It’s not the same playing at Fenway without them.”

While the veteran right-hander may not know what the plan is for having fans in the stands at Fenway in 2021, Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy shed some light on that topic during a virtual town hall event last week.

“We’d love to host fans if the health and safety experts up here and the government officials say it’s okay,” Kennedy told NESN’s Tom Caron this past Thursday. “We have a plan to host fans in a socially distanced environment with all sorts of requirements for masks and hand sanitizing, things like that. We’ve seen around the country, it works, at different venues. We’re hoping to have that but we have not engaged with the state of Massachusetts or the city of Boston… It’s our sincere hope to have fans back at Fenway as early as Opening Day. We’re cautiously optimistic, but again, that is not our decision.”

That decision, as it turns out, is up to the medical community, health experts, and local city and state officials, Kennedy said.

(Picture of Matt Barnes: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)