Fans watch as Boston Red Sox players stretch before a spring training game against the Minnesota Twins on Sunday in Fort Myers, Florida. Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Baseball is back. At least the preseason version of it.

The Boston Red Sox opened up Grapefruit League play on Sunday with a seven-inning loss to the Minneosta Twins. The game had a little bit of everything you want in a game – a comeback, a late-inning collapse, and (2,154) living, breathing fans in attendance.

“It looked like a full ballpark,” said Boston starting pitcher Nate Eovaldi.

It also had something you don’t usually see. The second inning ended after Miguel Sano hit a two-run double to put the Twins up 5-1. Under this year’s Grapefruit League rules you can end an inning after 20 pitches. Cora had seen enough and decided it was time to get his offense back to work.

“We have to take care of players,” Cora said of the abrupt ending, “but it’s weird.”

Embrace the weirdness, because you’ll be seeing plenty more of it this month. Like seven-inning games. If that’s not weird enough, the Twins batted in the bottom of the seventh even though they were leading. At home. Manager Rocco Baldelli wanted his players to get a little more work since the game wasn’t going a full nine.

Spring training is all about sifting through meaningless scores to find relevance. There were plenty of moments that stood out Sunday. Bobby Dalbec picked up where he left off last season and smashed a 408-foot bomb. Jeter Downs hit a homer in his first at-bat and reminded everyone he should be the second baseman of the future. Eovaldi hit 99 mph with his fastball but showed some wildness.

This is what we’re looking for in March. We want individual players to showcase their readiness, and for prospects to tease us with a glimpse of the future. We want to dream about future success, whether it’s Eovaldi’s quest to make a second straight Opening Day start or Downs’ emergence as the No. 1 prospect in the organization.

Cora has seen it all before, but on Sunday he was seeing it through new eyes. His one-year suspension from the game has given him a greater appreciation for the opportunity at hand.

“It was amazing,” said Cora. “Just to walk around, talk baseball and teach the game.”

These Red Sox love their manager’s ability to teach. Cora has been roaming the fields at Fenway South with a renewed swagger. He believes in the veterans Chaim Bloom has brought in, and loves to tell us how experience and versatility will make this a surprisingly good team in 2021.

Last time he managed at spring training, Cora was trying to ease off the workload for a team that had won a World Series less than four months earlier. Now he’s trying to coax a ballclub back into playoff contention.

In a televised workout last week J.D. Martinez told me his swing was hampered by a lingering foot issue and a tight right shoulder. He believes those issues are behind him. Xander Bogaerts talked about leadership and how he’s taking a more active role helping Rafael Devers harness his potential. Matt Barnes made it clear he’s ready to take on the closer’s role after years as a setup man.

Those three, and many others, spoke with a confidence you wouldn’t expect to hear from a team coming off one of the worst seasons in franchise history. There’s no doubt it’s a reflection of the man who is back in the manager’s seat.

“This is what I do,” said Cora. And his players are clearly happy he’s doing it again. There wasn’t much joy at Fenway last summer, and if Cora can get his team to have a little fun at the start of this season he’s already taken a huge step in the right direction.

Tom Caron is a studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on NESN. His column runs on Tuesdays in the Portland Press Herald.


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