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McAdam: Red Sox set to kick off title defense with an eye on repeat

(Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

SEATTLE -- Starting today, the Red Sox will try to pick up where they left off last October.

Literally.

Chris Sale, who threw the Red Sox' final pitch of the 2018 season, overpowering Manny Machado with a hellacious slider, will throw their first one of the 2019 season, too. (For the record, the last time an American League pitcher threw the final pitch of the World Series one year, then the first pitch for his team the following spring, was 1983-84, when Scott McGregor of the Baltimore Orioles did so).

It's fitting that the Sox have that continuity dating back to Game 5 at Dodger Stadium, because very little has changed in the interim. Ian Kinsler, Sandy Leon, Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel will be missing when the Sox get introduced on the third base line at T-Mobile Park. Colten Brewer has been added. Steve Pearce and Dustin Pedroia will be absent, but only temporarily.

Other than that, it's all very familiar for the Sox, who will use virtually the same roster to try to do what no team has done in almost 20 years: repeat as champions.

The rotation is exactly the same. So is the everyday lineup, and the bench. Only the bullpen, reconfigured and largely undefined, looks significantly different. And given the uncertainty and the importance of the pen, it will go a long way toward determining how successful the 2019 edition is.

It starts with Sale, who will take the mound a day shy of his 30th birthday with his contractual status settled through 2024. Despite finishing the Series with a flourish, Sale was not at this peak powers last fall. A case of mild shoulder inflammation limited his effectiveness over the final three months of 2018.

But Sale maintains there are no questions about his readiness as he prepares for the opener.

"I just had some time (to rest over the winter),'' he said. "Last year was a grind at times, but we got out of it. We handled it. We're kind of onto something new now. Just the build-up in spring training, the rest of the offseason, the way we have everything set up going into the season, we're confident in what we have.''

Sale will be backed by arguably the best lineup in the game, albeit one that's slightly rejiggered in its presentation. Unlike last year, Andrew Benintendi will hit leadoff, Mookie Betts will drop to second, and for now at least, Rafael Devers will hit third.

Much more is known this year compared to last. A year ago, Alex Cora was a rookie manager -- energetic, confident and in command, yes, but also a largely unknown quality in the dugout. A year later, he's established himself as one the game's top managers, buoyed by his team's remarkable regular season (a franchise-record 108 wins) and a near flawless October run.

Cora has helped foster a togetherness that is rare in modern professional sports. Twice in the span of three days in the last week, the entire roster gathered: first at Pedroia's house in Arizona and then later, at a Seattle restaurant where Betts picked up the check for an eve-of-the-regular-season team dinner.

It's still unknown how the bullpen will perform, or even what roles will be filled by whom. But Cora doesn't appear in the least bit concerned by the undefined (publicly, at least) plan, pointing to the skepticism that surrounded his group of relievers last summer and again prior to the start of the postseason.

And we know how that all turned out.

Maintaining a championship-caliber roster for an extended stretch is difficult and often cost-prohibitive, and even with Sale's extension, there's a sense that this particular group could have a limited shelf life, with Rick Porcello and Xander Bogaerts -- among others -- facing free agency this fall and two-thirds of the starting outfield eligible the season after.

For now, however, the focus is on repeating last year's end result, if not the gaudy win total. That's motivation enough.

"I'm up for the challenge,'' said Cora. "This repeating thing is not easy, but we have a good team. I'm not saying if we win this one we become the greatest team ever, but at this level, it's very hard to repeat and the last team to do it was the Yankees in the last '90s.

"This organization has been in the playoffs three years in a row. If we do what we set out to do, people are going to be talking about this group forever and that's something cool.''