FORT MYERS, Fla. — Still smarting from the nosedive of last September, Boston Red Sox fans may be leery of the 2012 season, which begins Thursday in Detroit.

New Boston manager Bobby Valentine is not among the tepid.

“I have great expectations,” he said, adding a little dig to last year.

“They’re not the best team ever assembled … I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

Yes, last year’s team was considered by some the finest Red Sox team ever — on paper. And from April 16 to Aug. 31, Boston looked the part with an 81-42 record. It was the beginning and end that did in the Red Sox.

“With what’s happened in the past, I think everybody is ready to just go play baseball,” Red Sox starting pitcher Josh Beckett said.

“I’m pretty excited about it. We’re a really good team.”

Of course, it was Beckett who talked of winning 100 games last season.

Beckett’s point this year is that the pitching looks better — or, at least healthier — and the bats are still there. Boston led the league in runs scored (875) last season.

“We’re going to score runs,” he said. “We proved that last year and there’s not a whole lot of changes in our offense. Maybe one guy here or there.”

And the pitching?

“Everybody just has to go out and beat their guy that day,” Beckett said.

Sounds like a plan.

Can Boston execute the plan? Here are 11 ways they can carry it out:

1. Start stronger.

The Red Sox recovered from the 2-10 start last year to take the division lead. But, with a stronger start, that lead in September would have been so much bigger. And wouldn’t that have helped out?

The April problems of 2011 could be rooted in a casual spring training. Red Sox Hall-of-Famer Jim Rice called Boston’s spring training camp a “country club.”

Valentine addressed that problem. He ran a camp based on building fundamentals, repeating drills over and over.

2. Stay healthy on the mound

Possibly the most important quote this spring came from Clay Buchholz, as he prepared himself for the season.

“Not having any ill effects from last year has helped out a lot,” he said.

Buchholz suffered a stress fracture in his back and did not pitch after June 16. He had been 6-3 with a 3.48 ERA in 14 starts.

3. Starters need to stay out there

While Boston’s offense led the league, the team’s ERA ranked ninth (4.20). Tampa Bay (3.58) and the Yankees (3.73) ranked two and four.

Tampa Bay’s strength was that its starters led the league in innings pitched per start (6.5). Starters James Shields (249 innings), David Price (224) and others were able to keep the Rays’ bullpen fresh.

New York ranked only eighth in inning per start (6.0), but they combined a solid group of starters with a solid bullpen, led by Mariano Rivera (1.91 ERA) and David Robertson (1.08). The Yankees’ pen normally caught a break when C.C. Sabathia (237 innings) was on the mound.

Boston ranked 12th among 14 American League teams in innings per start (5.8). The bullpen’s flaws were exposed when taxed so much. No Boston starter surpassed 200 innings.

4. Build starting pitching depth

When Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka were sidelined early, the Red Sox relied on an aging Tim Wakefield (5.12 ERA), a defective John Lackey (6.41) and a wild Andrew Miller (5.54) to follow the leads of Beckett and Jon Lester.

Wakefield (retired) and Lackey (Tommy John surgery) are out of the picture, and Miller is in the bullpen.

Boston has Felix Doubront looking like he’s ready to emerge as a major leaguer. Relievers Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves are both being considered as starters.

If neither Bard nor Aceves works out, the bullpen becomes that much stronger.

Other starters waiting their turn include former Colorado Rockies All-Star Aaron Cook, who has slipped the past two years with various injuries. If healthy, he could be a solid back-end starter.

The unexpected wild card here could be Matsuzaka. He has returned quicker than expected from Tommy John surgery. He could be ready June 1 or earlier. He had struggled the past three years, but a surgically-repaired arm may be the difference.

5. Utilize the bullpen well

Jonathan Papelbon and his 31 saves are gone. But the Red Sox pen could be deeper — which is something you’ve heard before.

Andrew Bailey, Mark Melancon and Aceves (and/or Bard) make up the cornerstone. Bailey saved 75 games in three years with Oakland, and should get more opportunities in Boston.

Vicente Padilla, Franklin Morales and Matt Albers have the makings of a strong supporting cast. Michael Bowden might be there, too.

Miller will start the season briefly on the disabled list. And lefty Rich Hill is another one to have a speedy recovery from Tommy John surgery. He could be ready by the end of the month.

Scott Atchison and Ross Ohlendorf add depth from Pawtucket. Alex Wilson could emerge mid-season.

6. Get Youkilis going

There is concern that third baseman Kevin Youkilis is breaking down. Youkilis, 33, played only 102 games in 2010 and 120 in 2011, because of injuries.

Last year, he went on the disabled list on Aug. 18 with a lower back strain. He came back for 10 games in September and wasn’t the same, shutting it down after Sept. 15.

When looking for reasons for the September collapse, Youkilis’ absence is up there. He hit 17 home runs, but none after Aug. 14.

Boston needs Youkilis healthy, not only to play an effective third base, but to balance the power part of the lineup, batting between lefties Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz.

7. Avoid the Beckett even-year jinx

Since Josh Beckett joined the Red Sox in 2006, he has been up and down. In even-numbered years, Beckett is 34-27 with a 4.87 ERA. In odd-numbered years, he is 50-20 with a 3.36 ERA.

8. Monitor the shortstop

Mike Aviles looked like a solid utility infielder. With the trade of Marco Scutaro, he is now the starting shortstop. Aviles brings a solid-enough glove and a career .288 average.

The Red Sox will be watching Aviles closely, as well as shortstop Jose Iglesias in Pawtucket. Iglesias is the Sox shortstop of the future. When that era begins will depend how both perform early in the season.

9. Hold the runners

Boston’s attitude to base-stealers in the past has been one of apathy. Focus on the batter was the mantra. This spring, Red Sox pitchers have worked harder on holding runners on. The addition of Kelly Shoppach as the back-up catcher will help.

10. Find the right outfield mix

Until Carl Crawford and his recovering wrist come back, Cody Ross will be in left field, Ryan Sweeney in right, and Darnell McDonald as the back-up. Jacoby Ellsbury is obviously secure in center.

When Crawford returns, Ross and Sweeney could platoon in right. Or Valentine can go with the hotter bat.

There is also the possible addition of Ryan Kalish, who is recovering from shoulder surgery and could be ready mid-season.

11. It’s all about attitude.

Maybe the 9-20 finish to the 2011 season was a perfect storm when nearly every Boston player struggled.

Maybe that collapse stemmed from a too-casual attitude. And when the going got tough, the Red Sox could not get going.

The collapse sent manager Terry Francona out of Boston, and brought in Valentine. The new manager is not going to give a stirring clubhouse speech to fix everything. He knows that.

“Motivation is all self-motivation,” Valentine said. “That stuff doesn’t come from the manager. It doesn’t come from the press. It doesn’t come from the fans. Individuals are motivated by needs and desires.”

And if the desire of these Red Sox is to erase the memory of 2011, by playing to their potential in 2012, this could be a season worth watching.


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