Sox staff in throes of a slump
Red Sox injured starter Tim Wakefield will provide a needed boost to the pitching staff when he returns. (AP Photo)
Tim Wakefield turned 40 last week, an occasion that received less fanfare than it should have because the knuckleballer is on the disabled list.
But if there was a time to make the case that Wakefield remains as valuable as ever to the Red Sox -- even if it won't be that much longer before he's more concerned with AARP than ERA -- it is now, with the pitching staff going through its roughest stretch of the season.
As the Sox head into Kansas City tonight for the start of a three-game series against the Royals, the best news that manager Terry Francona could receive is that Wakefield is getting closer to coming out of the pool, where he has been rehabbing the stress fracture in his ribs, and returning to the mound. It won't happen soon, as Wakefield just began playing catch last weekend. But his eventual return to health could provide a much-needed lift.
On July 21, the Sox hit five home runs in a 9-4 win over the Mariners in Seattle to open a 3 1/2-game lead over the Yankees in the American League East. The next day would have been Wakefield's regular start, but he'd been placed on the DL. The Sox started a marginal prospect named Kason Gabbard that day, and while he pitched better than anyone had the right to expect, the Sox lost that afternoon and the next day as well. That started a 6-9 stretch that has dropped them two games behind the Yankees in the division. They also are tied for the wild-card lead with the White Sox and are a half-game ahead of the Twins.
While the bullpen has received a good deal of heat in the aftermath of back-to-back shaky efforts in losses to the Devil Rays, Sox starters have also struggled, with a 3-7 record and 6.00 ERA over those 15 games. No starter other than Curt Schilling (twice) and Josh Beckett (once) has won in that time, and only once has a starter gone as many as seven innings (Schilling in last Friday's 3-2 win over Tampa Bay). That has had a ripple effect on a pen that is showing the strain of a heavy workload.
And that's where Wakefield comes in. Last season, Wakefield went seven innings or more in 19 of his 33 starts. He was on a similar pace this season, going seven or more in 7 of 13 starts until mid-June, which is when he said he first began experiencing pain. In his last six starts prior to going on the DL, Wakefield didn't last seven innings once, which also added to the pen wearing down.
And say what you will about Matt Clement, who looks as if he's done for this season, but last season he went seven or more innings 12 times in 32 starts.
The four starters who have taken turns in the absence of Wakefield and Clement in the last 15 games are winless in six starts (0-4); none of them have pitched beyond the sixth inning (though Jason Johnson might be stretched out after allowing just one earned run in six innings Sunday), and their combined ERA is 5.35 (20 earned runs in 33 2/3 innings).
The Sox will throw Jon Lester, Beckett, and Schilling at the Royals, three pitchers who have combined to win 32 games this season, or only a half-dozen fewer than the Royals have won as a team.
That should give the Sox a huge advantage, although it didn't help in Tropicana Field that the 25 players Joe Maddon had available last weekend collectively are paid less than Manny Ramírez ($20 million for Manny, just under $18 million for the current D-Rays). And while Schilling was immense against the D-Rays, he has been spotty in this stretch as well, as his 6.00 ERA over three starts would attest. Beckett (6.50 ERA) and Lester (6.75) have been no better, with Beckett hit with a 7-spot in his last start against the Indians, who hit three more home runs against him.
The bullpen (3-2, 5.63 ERA in that stretch) hasn't been able to bail out the starters with any consistency. Whether it's the kids -- Craig Hansen (6.75 ERA in seven appearances, scored upon in three of his last four), and Manny Delcarmen (12.60 ERA in six appearances, scored upon in four) -- or the old reliable, Mike Timlin (9.53 ERA in six appearances, an alarming 4 home runs in just 5 2/3 innings), the pen hardly offers safe refuge.
Even the one brilliant constant, closer Jonathan Papelbon, took a hit Sunday, when he blew a save on a game-tying home run by Dioner Navarro. Julian Tavarez (three extra-inning losses) has the worst mojo on the team, while Rudy Seanez is actually getting people out -- he's unscored upon in seven appearances since the break -- but has obviously lost the confidence of Francona, who uses him mostly in mopup duty.
Factor in five starting catchers in a span of seven days -- Jason Varitek, Doug Mirabelli, Ken Huckaby, Javy Lopez, and Corky Miller -- and you can understand why the Sox need a lifeline.
Now, if Wakefield could just use it to pull himself out of the pool . . .