Rays-Red Sox Preview

The Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) - Fenway Park will be all decked out for its 101st season. Fans will flood the streets and fill the seats at the neighborhood stadium. Red Sox players will try to give them a good show.

They'd better.

Boston's passionate and demanding rooters could have little patience for a continued early season slide for the second straight year.

"I think we have the greatest fans in the world," new manager Bobby Valentine said. "We'll find out."

The Red Sox were 1-5 on their season-opening road trip to Detroit and Toronto. On Friday, with colorful bunting adorning the park, they begin a tough nine-game homestand - four against Tampa Bay, two against Texas and three against New York.

Last year's start was even worse, an 0-6 flop overshadowed by a 7-20 September collapse that left them out of the playoffs - and the Rays in them - with a loss on the final day.

And they did surge from last year's early troubles to take sole possession of first place in the AL East by May 27 with a 29-22 record.

"You have stretches where you play six games and things don't go your way," Valentine said. "Then you have stretches where you play six games and everything goes your way. Six games is a ridiculously small sample size."

So there's plenty of hope for fans who will sit in the stadium where the Red Sox beat the New York Highlanders (later to become the Yankees) in the first regular-season game there April 20, 1912.

The Yankees will be the opponent there on the 100th anniversary of that game to open a three-game series. Fenway has undergone numerous upgrades since John Henry bought the team in February 2002 - seats above the Green Monster, upgraded concourses, a new scoreboard - after years in which there was a major push for a new park elsewhere.

In early March, the ballpark was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

But what kind of ballclub plays there?

The rotation is a question mark, although Jon Lester was solid in his two starts. Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz were shelled in their first outings, Daniel Bard is making the transition from setup man and Felix Doubront is in it for the first time.

The bullpen is a jumble with Jonathan Papelbon now in Philadelphia and his replacement, Andrew Bailey, likely sidelined until midseason after thumb surgery.

Beckett (0-1, 13.50 ERA), who allowed five homers in his first start, will face David Price (1-0, 2.84) of the Rays on Friday.

"That first start's always a crapshoot," Beckett said. "You've got a lot of anxiety leading up to that. You want to do well. A lot of times, you expend too much energy on things that don't help you be successful."

The hitters are struggling, too, with a .236 batting average and two homers in six games before Thursday's off day.

"We've been here before and we know we can get out of it," first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. "And we will. But nobody wanted this."

Now they must play the Rays, who swept a three-game series against the Yankees before losing two of three in Detroit including a 7-2 defeat Thursday afternoon.

"We're very pleased to be 4-2 after playing two of the best teams in the American League, but it isn't going to get any easier," manager Joe Maddon said. "Everyone is going to be excited in Boston and they need some wins so we need to keep playing at this level."

Price had a much stronger season debut than Beckett, limiting the Yankees to two runs over six innings of an 8-6 victory Saturday. He's 6-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 10 starts versus Boston.

Rays third baseman Evan Longoria went 2 for 4 on Thursday, raising his average to .476 during a season-opening six-game hitting streak. He may have a good chance to continue his run, as he's 12 for 37 (.324) with two homers and three doubles off Beckett.

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