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February 27, 2009

Spotlight's on Varitek, Bard for all the wrong reasons

The games in Florida mean nothing. For the most part, neither do the statistics. But that doesn't mean storylines don't deserve our attention.

As spring training season picks up steam — the Boston College game is now in the past — here are nine things to look for before the Red Sox open up against the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays:

1. Jason Varitek from the left side

While we rail about his .220 batting average in 2008, a closer look shows that his problems at the plate are on the left side. Varitek hit .201 (66-for-328, 29 RBI, 8 HRs) as a lefty. From the right side, he was pretty good at .284 (27-for-95, 5 HRs, 14 RBI). The problem is most pitchers are right-handed. The good news, Varitek, a natural righty, has apparently spent a lot of time on simplifying his swing from the left side.

2. Josh Bard and Tim Wakefield

In 2006 it looked more like Bard vs. Wakefield with 10 passed balls in five games. With Wakefield being in the rotation to start the season it appears the Sox will continue to give Varitek that day off. With the lack of catching around the league, the Sox will be committed to Bard this time around. Good news, he didn't have a passed ball in two innings with Wake on Wednesday.

3. Josh Beckett's health

Beckett had a bad back last March and it was a sign of tough season (12-10, 4.03 ERA), with other nagging injuries dogging him.

If he can stay healthy — that means blister-free, too — he will have the eye of the tiger, which he never really got in 2008.

4. Mike Lowell's hip

Why did the Red Sox go hard after Mark Teixeira? Lowell's hip injury was one big reason. Expect the Red Sox to bring Lowell along slowly. With Jed Lowrie probably being the utility guy to start the season, he is the backup plan at third base. But it will be interesting to see if Lowell is able to work out the kinks of a difficult off-season.

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