JUPITER, Fla. -- The Boston Red Sox will host the Kansas City Royals on April 19. That’s Jackie Bradley Jr.’s birthday, but it's highly unlikely he will begin his 23rd year playing center field at Fenway. As reported throughout the spring, Red Sox fans will have to wait.
In Boston’s 8-7 loss to the Miami Marlins on Monday, Bradley didn’t make anyone wait, homering before a crowd of 6,406 spectators settled into their seats. He took the game's first pitch from Marlins starter Kevin Slowey, a middle-away fastball, over the wall in left. It was his first homer this spring.
“I was ambushing him,” Bradley said. "If I saw a pitch I could handle right away, I was going to meet it."
It was an impressive shot for the 5-foot-10, 180-pound center fielder, who muscled it to the opposite field about 365 feet away.
“The catcher [Rob Brantly] said it [the wind] was blowing in and he didn’t understand how I got it,” Bradley said.
Bradley finished 3 for 4 with a walk and an RBI double, raising his average to .519 (14-for-27). That’s second in the Grapefruit League.
He has a league-best .618 OBP and is second in OPS (1.411). He continues to be the story of the spring.
After Bradley's first-inning homer, he drew a walk off Slowey in the third. In the fourth, he took a curveball to the corner in left field off Marlins right-hander Tom Koehler, scoring Mitch Maier to make it 5-1. He also singled in the eighth off Marlins lefty Mike Dunn.
Much to the delight of his manager, Bradley keeps producing against big-league pitchers of many profiles, whether it be lefty or righty, rookie or veteran.
“He’s balanced at the plate,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “He stays inside the ball. [He hit] against Slowey and Dunn, two guys that I’m sure they’re probably counting on.
“We’re seeing it as we get deeper into camp. Pitchers are getting their timing, they’re repeating their delivery and making good pitches, and he’s handling many different types of guys. He’s had a strong camp.”
Bradley will be in Boston someday. The question is when. But that’s the best kind of question for Red Sox fans to bat around. It’s the polar opposite of the last two seasons, during which the direction of the franchise, among other negatives, was questioned.
Bradley knows no matter how well he performs, he’ll have to wait for the answer. It will take a significant injury -- to right fielder Shane Victorino or center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury -- for him to break camp with the Red Sox. Even if they deem him ready for big-league action in 2013, they might want to keep him in the minors for a few weeks, if not months, to delay the start of his service time, and thus, delay him from reaching salary arbitration. That’s business. He understands that.
“It’s not hard on me,” he said. “I pretty much run my own race. I don’t worry about anything else. As long as I keep playing the game, things will happen. Whenever they happen, I’ll be sure I’m ready for them.”
Bradley was speaking in a near-empty visitors’ clubhouse. All but one of his Red Sox teammates was waiting on the bus as he grabbed the rest of his belongings from his stall.
“I’m slow, man,” he said, shaking his head. “I always am.”
In leaving the clubhouse? Sure. In getting onto the field? Sox fans hope not.
* Jon Lester put some first-inning struggles behind him and finished what Farrell called “five innings of good, solid work.”
In his longest start of the spring, Lester allowed one run on three hits. He struck out four and walked none.
He allowed a leadoff single to veteran speedster Juan Pierre, who scored on a single by cleanup man Chris Valaika. After a Casey Kotchman double in the second, Lester set down the final 11 batters he faced. He had especially fine command of his curveball, which Farrell said was “the best it’s been all camp.”
Lester said he controlled his offspeed stuff better than he did last Wednesday, when he walked three in four innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lester says he’s still struggling with the tweaks he and the coaching staff have made to his delivery.
“I felt like early on I was a little out of sync, but was able to correct it to where I needed to be,” Lester said. “It’s coming.”
Lester, who threw 54 pitches, 38 for strikes, said he’ll throw between 60 and 80 pitches in his next start. Farrell said that will be Sunday at JetBlue Park against the Tampa Bay Rays.
It’s a foregone conclusion Lester will be the Opening Day starter, though no one would say it.
* Mike Napoli was hit in the left wrist in the third inning, but remained in the game. A Kevin Slowey fastball caught him on the inside of his left wrist, close to his hand. Napoli said the area briefly went numb, but was soon OK. He wore no ice on it as he spoke to reporters.
“Anytime you get hit in that wrist area, it gets a little dangerous,” Farrell said. “He’s fine.”
Napoli said he feels plenty comfortable at first base, and he looked it. He dove unsuccessfully for Valaika’s first-inning RBI single, but ended the inning with a solid diving stop and putout. Both times he ranged toward second to make the play.
“I feel good with my setup and my timing,” he said. “Last time out I felt good. Today I felt better.”
He used to miss catching, but no longer does.
“I think I’ve let it go,” he said.
* It was a miserable outing for Rubby De La Rosa, who got just two outs in the seventh inning. The 24-year-old right-hander walked four batters and allowed two hits, including a three-run double by Kevin Kouzmanoff.
The five earned runs he allowed turned the Red Sox’s 7-1 lead into a 7-6 nail-biter. Miami completed the comeback in the ninth, when outfield prospect Christian Yelich hit a two-run walk-off homer off Chris Carpenter.
It was the second consecutive poor showing for De La Rosa, who last Wednesday against the Pirates gave up three runs (two earned) in two innings. So what’s up? Everything, his manager said, especially his fastball.
“It looks like he’s overthrowing,” Farrell said. “He’s always having to fight his way back into the count. He’s creating a little bit of his own issues, creating traffic with some bases on balls. But today he showed up a little more than the other day. Just overthrowing, and not trusting his stuff as he should.”
* Including Bradley, three Red Sox homered. Mike Carp hit a fourth-inning solo shot off Tom Koehler and Will Middlebrooks took Jon Rauch deep in the seventh. All three homers went to left. The Sox built their six-run lead on those, plus Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s two-run double in the third.