FORT MYERS, Fla. -- What time does the Grapefruit League season begin for the Red Sox Saturday afternoon?
The schedule says 1:35 p.m., but the answer the Sox would love to see is "Awesome o’clock." That’s a time that has become associated with pitcher John Lackey ever since he was introduced to a Boston audience in a video parody by townienews.com. [“At the tone, the time will be ..." and a voice purporting to be Lackey answers "Awesome o’clock."] I’d include the link, but the video is rated IM (for immature audiences only), so you’re on your own.
Lackey will be pitching for the first time since Sept. 25, 2011, before undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery that sidelined him for nearly 16 months. He’ll go one inning against a split-squad team of Tampa Bay Rays. You can watch for yourself on NESN.com.
The first-base experiment with Daniel Nava is also about to commence, although the acquisition this week of former Mariner Mike Carp may give him an edge in the auditions the Sox are conducting at that position. Carp, like Nava, is on the 40-man major-league roster, and while non-roster invitee Lyle Overbay is probably the best first baseman in camp, Carp’s ability to play both first and left is a plus in his favor. Carp is scheduled to face Clay Buchholz and Franklin Morales in a simulated game Saturday morning.
The switch-hitting Nava could still stick as an extra outfielder, though he has looked surprisingly comfortable at first base. Playing the position at game speed, of course, poses a much greater challenge.
“Little League,’’ Nava answered when asked the first time he wore a first baseman’s mitt. “I played it all the time in Little League, but obviously that’s Little League, that’s different than here.’’
When Nava said that, I suspect it was checking to see if his audience [me] was paying attention.
“I played in junior college,’’ he continued, “not the whole season, but enough to learn bunt defenses, stuff like that. Obviously, it’s different at this level, but at least it gave me some idea, a feel for maybe what to expect at this position. It’s just nice this spring that it’s not completely foreign.’’
Nava, who turned 30 Friday, made a triumphant return to the big leagues last season after his career had taken on a one-and-done look when he was designated for assignment in 2011, cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A Pawtucket. But instead of fading into obscurity, Nava redoubled his efforts with the PawSox, had a very good spring as a nonroster invitee last spring and made it back to the Sox in May, immediately lighting it up upon his arrival. Through the end of June, he was batting .302 through 44 games, had drawn 26 walks, which pushed his on-base average to .421, and had banged out 12 doubles and 3 home runs, knocking in 26 runs.
A nagging wrist injury knocked him out of the lineup for three weeks, and his second-half performance suffered [.188/.284/.323/.607]
After the season, he had surgery to remove a cyst from his left wrist.
He says he has embraced the challenge of learning a new position.
“I think it’s been really cool, because it’s given me an opportunity to get engaged again,’’ Nava said. “Now I’ve got to be really involved. I’ve got to pay attention, I’ve got to be on top of it, you can’t think about anything except what’s right in front of you, because you’re likely to be involved in a lot more plays in the infield.
“I didn’t set a standard of, this is what I need to do. It was more, ‘Let’s just take in as much as I can every day, because I know there’s a lot I need to learn. I’m just happy the reports I’ve been getting back, they’re happy with what they’re seeing. It’s not up to me as far as what I’m OK with, it’s what they’re OK with. I think they like the progress from what I’ve been told, but there’s a lot more work and game reps, which will be the next step.’’
The Sox aren’t looking for Nava to win a Gold Glove at the bag, but with Mike Napoli also a relative newcomer at the position, having caught for most of his career, the Sox might be looking for some plus defense at the position.
“I don’t know exactly what they want, in terms of like, ‘You need to be this capable of playing the position in order for it to work,’’’ Nava said. “I’m not sure where things stand with that. If I’m out there fumbling all over the place, that’s not a good situation. I think if I can go out there and show them hopefully that I have a good feel, that I can continue to keep working and have the desire to keep working, I think in my opinion that would mean this is something that potentially could work.
“There are a lot of different options out here, so they’re going to do what’s best for the team. As corny as that sounds, it’s true. Maybe start out as an experiment, play it by ear and see where the game reps take you.’’