By HOWARD ULMAN AP Sports Writer
FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) _ Now batting first for the Boston Red Sox?
The departure of Jacoby Ellsbury left a vacancy at the top of the lineup. Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino were manager John Farrell’s first two candidates to fill it and he recently mentioned Jonny Gomes as another possibility.
None of them will lead the majors with 52 stolen bases as Ellsbury did last season _ “If I can start halfway between first and second, maybe I’ve got a shot,” Nava said _ but all have a knack for getting on base so the big hitters can drive them in.
Nava’s .385 on-base percentage was fifth in the AL last season and Victorino’s .351 was 23rd. Ellsbury finished 19th at .355 then signed a seven-year contract with the New York Yankees.
Gomes, at .344, platoons with Nava in left field and could hit first when he plays, despite having more power and less speed than the typical leadoff batter.
“I hit first a lot in the minor leagues,” Gomes said Monday. “When you look at the numbers without names being next to them you say, `OK, this guy bats first.’ And then the name pops up and, `Oh, no, we can’t have this guy.’ Why not? What happened?”
None of the three candidates would have to change their approach much, if at all. But they didn’t bat first much last year when Ellsbury had that spot for 134 games for the World Series champions. Dustin Pedroia led off 11 times, Nava nine and Victorino eight
“It doesn’t matter where I hit,” Victorino said. “It doesn’t matter where I play.”
The Red Sox also must replace Ellsbury in center field, where his speed helped him race to catch balls in the gaps. Jackie Bradley Jr. takes over after an inconsistent first year. Victorino could shift from right field to play there. And Grady Sizemore, sidelined the past two seasons after some outstanding years in Cleveland, could see time in center.
“It was definitely different,” Bradley said of last season, when he won a roster spot with a strong spring training only to falter after that. “I learned a lot. You know what you’re getting into now and I leave last year (behind). I’m excited and I’m ready for the opportunity to show what I’ve got.”
Bradley likely will hit near the bottom of the order, so the more he produces, the more chances the leadoff hitter will have to drive him home. The No. 1 hitter is guaranteed to lead off only the first inning.
“There’s a really good chance that in the fifth inning your leadoff guy is coming up with the bases loaded,” Gomes said. “So he may hit first one at bat a game.”
Still, the lineup is based on getting runners on base before the best hitters start batting in the third, fourth and fifth spots. So that ability to reach base is critical. Last year those spots were filled most of the time by Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli.
“You’re the table setter,” Nava said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who can do a lot of damage. That’s what Ells did such a good job of last year. He got on base. He disrupted the throwing game.”
Nava’s .303 batting average last season was higher than Ellsbury’s .298. But whoever replaces Ellsbury, in the lineup, on base and in the field, can’t match his overall accomplishments.
“We all know what he brought to the table in all facets of the game, especially how much he meant on the defensive end. He’ll be missed,” right-hander Jake Peavy said. “At the same time, we certainly believe in the guys that we have out there. There’s not a better right fielder than Shane Victorino. We believe in Jackie, Grady Sizemore. We have no problems in believing that they’ll hold their own.”
Of course, there’s one area where the difference will be dramatic.
Victorino was second on the team with 21 steals, still less than half of Ellsbury’s total. Gomes stole one base and Nava none.
“Fifty-two bags is tough to make up for, but if you pick six guys and you ask them to steal six bags more than they did last year _ it’s one a month _ it’s (almost) going to cover it. One person doesn’t have to steal 50.”
Certainly not Gomes, right?
“Just watch,” he said with a grin.
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