BOSTON – The Boston Red Sox came close to winning 100 games in six of the last eight seasons. Could this be the year they do it?
Their lineup is loaded. Their rotation is strong. Their bullpen is improved. Their health is much better.
And the addition of two of baseball's most productive players, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, makes them widely favored to reach the World Series for the third time in eight years.
"I've always wanted to be on a team that won 100 games," Josh Beckett said. "I feel like this team has a chance to do something really special like that."
Maybe so. But once the regular season ends, the victory total of each playoff team is rolled back to zero.
History shows that 100 wins hardly guarantee postseason success.
In the past 24 years, only two of the 25 teams that reached that high level won the championship — the New York Yankees in 1998 and 2009. Of those 25 teams, 17 didn't even make it to the World Series.
The Red Sox have won 100 games only three times since beginning play in 1901, accomplishing the feat the last time in 1946.
So Kevin Youkilis has a much more modest hope.
"My goal is win one and then go for two," said Youkilis, who moves from first base to third to make room for Gonzalez. "As long as you make the playoffs, you give yourself a chance to win a World Series. So, hopefully, we win enough games where we make it in the playoffs. That's all that matters."
In 2004, the Red Sox were 98-64. Then they eliminated the Yankees (101-61) in the seven-game AL championship series, and swept the St. Louis Cardinals (105-57) in the World Series.
Starting in 2003, the Red Sox have won at least 95 games six times. They won 89 last year even though injuries sidelined three of the first four hitters in the lineup for long stretches. Youkilis played just 102 games, Dustin Pedroia 75 and Jacoby Ellsbury 18.
Now they're back in a batting order in which slugger David Ortiz figures to bat sixth.
Boston has a rotation that includes Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25 ERA last year) and Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33). One of baseball's worst bullpens added Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler.
But winning 100 games in the AL East while playing 18 each against the defending division-champion Tampa Bay Rays and the Yankees is a difficult accomplishment. General manager Theo Epstein doesn't mind that his players have talked about it after finishing third in the division last year.
"It's nice that those players feel good about themselves and their teammates and what we have here," he said, "but let's be honest. We haven't done anything yet. All we have is a bunch of guys in this clubhouse here to try to set out and do a job. We've got a lot to prove.
"We've got to prove we're not a third-place team in this division. We've got to prove that we can stay healthy. We've got to prove that we can repeat performances that guys have done in the past."
And, he hopes, others don't repeat last year's performances.
Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka are coming off poor seasons as starters. Closer Jonathan Papelbon had his worst year. Ortiz finished with 32 homers, but, for the second straight season, struggled mightily in April.
"I'm not planning on putting pressure on myself as the season starts," Ortiz said. "This offense can do some damage. You went and got two hitters (who) are trouble makers. They give a lot of headaches to pitchers."
The Red Sox signed Crawford, who won a Gold Glove last year when he hit .307 and stole 47 bases with Tampa Bay, as a free agent. They acquired Gonzalez from San Diego for three promising prospects after he missed just 11 games in five seasons there, batting .287 and averaging 32 homers and 100 RBIs while winning two Gold Gloves.
Plug them in and here's the likely lineup — Ellsbury, Pedroia, Crawford, Gonzalez, Youkilis, Ortiz, J.D. Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Marco Scutaro.
"It's great to be a part of a group like this," Gonzalez said, "that we can be together for the next few years, hopefully, and it's exciting."
Gonzalez, making $6.3 million in the final year of his contract, is expected to sign a long-term deal soon after the season starts. Crawford signed a seven-year, $142 million contract.
After playing in cities with fans hardly as passionate as Boston's, both newcomers say they're prepared for the intense scrutiny. Fenway Park crowds are loudly supportive when a player does well, but quick to turn on one who struggles.
"Pressure's something you put on yourself," Gonzalez said. "I'm just going to go out there and have fun and enjoy the fact that it's a packed house and feed off of that energy."
"I'm not worried about fans being at the game," Crawford said. "I'm excited to have a chance to play in front of all those people, whether I do good or bad."
He and Ellsbury, who stole 70 bases in 2009, will split opposing pitchers' attention between them and the batter. They'll also run down plenty of balls in left-center field.
But the Red Sox need better seasons from Beckett, 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA last year while bothered by back problems, and Matsuzaka, whose habit of nibbling at the corners of the plate drives up his pitch count. And Papelbon, hoping to get a lucrative long-term deal after the season, could lose his closer's job to Jenks or Daniel Bard if his struggles continue after last year's 3.90 ERA and eight blown saves out of 45 chances.
The Red Sox may be the class of the American League on paper, but they still have questions on the field.
"This game is not all about expectations," Ortiz said. "It's all about executing."
So, hold off on those predictions of 100 wins. They'll just focus on No. 1 on Friday at the Texas Rangers, last year's AL champions.
"I don't put numbers out there," Youkilis said. "I just go out and just play the game and all the numbers and all the wins will play themselves out after 162 games."