BOSTON (AP) – David Ortiz, Mike Lowell and the Boston Red Sox are healthy again heading into their season opener at Fenway Park against the team that stopped them one game short of another World Series.

Now the 2007 champions face another huge obstacle – perhaps the toughest division in baseball.

“Everyone talks about a three-team race,” Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said, “but Toronto’s got new leadership and they’ll be getting better in the years ahead. Baltimore’s got some good young talent so they’re going to be getting better.”

Tampa Bay, Boston’s opening day opponent, added slugger Pat Burrell. Toronto’s Cito Gaston starts his first full year as manager in his current tenure. And catcher Matt Wieters leads Baltimore’s long list of solid prospects.

Then, of course, there are the New York Yankees. They committed $423.5 million to Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to get them back to the top of the AL East and the playoffs.

The Red Sox spent much less – a total of $12.5 million in base salaries for 2009 for pitchers Brad Penny, John Smoltz and Takashi Saito and outfielder Rocco Baldelli.

All were sidelined for substantial parts of last year. But they’ve stayed healthy throughout spring training, aside from Penny’s brief bout with a tired shoulder that he’s recovered from.

Boston’s low-risk, potential high-reward approach could pay off.

“It’s too soon to say,” Lucchino said. “It seems from this vantage point now a sensible approach, but the proof is in the pudding. We have to wait and see what kind of results these guys bring about.”

The Red Sox made fewer significant changes among their starting position players than their pitching staff. The return of Ortiz and Lowell from serious injuries are major parts of a lineup that lacked power once Manny Ramirez was sent to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline.

Ortiz missed time with a wrist injury and, when he was the designated hitter, his swing had changed. Lowell tried to play through a damaged hip until the third baseman finally gave in before the playoffs and had surgery Oct. 20.

“I’m not really worried about the hip,” Lowell said late in spring training. “It’s more like just stay on top of it maintenance-wise.”

Lowell slipped from a .324 batting average with 120 RBIs in 2007 to .274 with 73 RBIs last year, when he played 41 fewer games. Ortiz’s decline was more drastic: from .332 with 35 RBIs and 117 RBIs in 2007 to .264 with 23 homers and 89 RBIs last year, when he played 40 fewer games.

Catcher Jason Varitek can’t do much worse than he did in 2008 when he hit a career-low .220 with 122 strikeouts and 43 RBIs in 423 at-bats. He led the Red Sox in spring training with 15 RBIs in 46 at-bats.

“The early returns on Lowell, Ortiz, Varitek are quite positive,” Lucchino said. “I think they all have plenty of gas in the tank and I think we’re going to see some serious bounceback performances there from those guys who are team leaders who can help carry this team.”

There are others: AL MVP Dustin Pedroia, first baseman Kevin Youkilis and outfielders Jason Bay and J.D. Drew.

But the strength of the team appears to be the pitching.

The rotation of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield and Penny is deep – with top prospects Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden starting the season in the minors. The bullpen anchored by closer Jonathan Papelbon got stronger with the additions of Saito and Ramon Ramirez.

And Beckett is healthy after a season in which injuries to his back, elbow and side limited him to a 12-10 record and affected him in the postseason.

Curt Schilling missed all of last season with shoulder problems then surgery and, with his retirement recently, Beckett is the ace of the staff.

“He enjoys the responsibility of that,” manager Terry Francona said. “He expects to win. When we had Schill here, you’re always walking that line of showing respect to the veteran.”

Beckett is slated to start his first opener in four years with Boston. Schilling started the first two and Beckett missed last year’s opener against Oakland in Tokyo after he hurt his back while warming up before a planned start in spring training.

Matsuzaka spent most of spring training pitching for Japan in the World Baseball Classic, where he was picked as the MVP before returning to the Red Sox.

Francona is happy the team didn’t have to make another long trip to Tokyo to start the season.

“Nobody’s complaining about that,” he said.

The pitchers should have plenty of support.

The Red Sox had the best on-base percentage (.358) and most walks (646) in the majors last year and were third overall with a .280 batting average and 845 runs.

Pedroia was second in the AL with a .326 batting average and tied for the major league lead with 213 hits. Youkilis was third in the AL with a .569 slugging average, fourth with 115 RBIs and third in the MVP voting.

“I think just from playing against this team for so long you know it’s a top-caliber team every year,” said Baldelli, who spent the last five seasons with Tampa Bay. “I just hope that this year would be no different.”

But the Rays went to the World Series last year and the Yankees made the biggest offseason splash.

“This still remains the most intense and competitive division in all of baseball,” Lucchino said.

AP-ES-04-03-09 1252EDT


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