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Boston — Last season was one to remember for fans of the Red Sox — and one to forget for the players.
Soon after Boston's third World Series championship in 10 years, that bearded bunch decided to put it behind them and focus on what they must do to keep winning.
"It was a dream come true last year," pitcher Jake Peavy said. "It's a new year. I think that's been a slogan of ours on the text messages that we've been exchanging with the guys, 'Hey turn the page, it's a new year, it's 2014.' We haven't done anything and, obviously, some teams in our division got awfully better."
The Red Sox won't be sneaking up on them, not after rebounding from a 69-93, last-place finish in the AL East to a 97-65 record, a 28-win improvement.
"You've got the bull's-eye on your back," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "You want to get everybody's best, so I think it's going to be a fun challenge for everybody."
John Farrell's disciplined, businesslike approach worked in his first year as Boston's manager. That, and the influx of players to improve the toxic clubhouse chemistry, made the one season under the animated Bobby Valentine seem like a distant memory.
Those players, including Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino, return. The Red Sox lost center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury to the New York Yankees then signed Grady Sizemore, who despite missing the last two seasons with knee and back injuries that required surgery, had such a healthy, productive spring training that he beat out Jackie Bradley Jr. for the starting job in center.
"It's very exciting," Sizemore said. "It's been a long road for me and I'm happy to keep moving forward and to be in this position for this team."
Of course it also doesn't hurt that the Red Sox have one of the deepest, most talented pitching staffs in the American League.
The rotation was so deep that when Ryan Dempster announced on the second day of spring training that he would take the year off for physical and personal reasons, little changed. Jon Lester, John Lackey, Felix Doubront, Peavy and Clay Buchholz already had the top five spots. Then the Red Sox added veteran depth with Chris Capuano, who begins the season in the bullpen.
The Red Sox already had a dominant closer in Koji Uehara. Then they signed Edward Mujica, who had 37 saves for St. Louis last season and provides protection for Uehara. Mujica lost his closer's job after struggling in September and pitched only two innings in the postseason, which ended when the Cardinals lost the World Series to the Red Sox in six games. Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow return as an outstanding setup duo.
The pitching staff will need some time to adjust to a new catcher, veteran A.J. Pierzynski, but that's a minor concern.
"You always are learning something," Pierzynski said. "It's going to be a yearlong process, hopefully, that goes deep into October."
Offensively, the Red Sox expect another productive season from David Ortiz, who won't be distracted by negotiating squabbles. He agreed to a 2015 contract with a club or vesting option for 2016 and a club option for 2017, so Big Papi can concentrate on his hitting. He had 30 homers last season then added five in 16 postseason games and was World Series MVP after hitting .688.
The Red Sox, who led the majors in runs last season, also should get power from Napoli (23 homers last year), Middlebrooks (17 homers in 94 games) and Pedroia, who's healthy after surgery for a torn ligament in his left thumb he played with all season that limited him to nine homers.
"In this group, no one's going to let anybody sit back and relax," Pedroia said. "We're always going to push each other and make sure that we're respecting the game and playing the game the right way. If we do that, we should be all right."