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From the looks of it, Epstein needs to stay focused

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 25, 2007
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CLEVELAND -- You beat C.C. Sabathia, 1-0, behind Daisuke Matsuzaka and great relief, to win your second consecutive game against one of the best teams in the American League. You could lose the next two for all you know, but baseball is a series of snapshots and this frame portrays the Red Sox as a very good team with good pitching.

Be careful not to be fooled by snapshots.

If you're Sox general manager Theo Epstein, you have look at the bigger picture over the week remaining before the trading deadline and determine, "Should I do something huge, something small, or nothing at all?"

If you go by this snapshot, you know you have five pretty good starting pitchers, one of whom -- Jon Lester -- made his 2007 debut Monday night and beat a strong Indians lineup.

What can be learned from this snapshot is you need offense so you don't have to trot Wily Mo Peña out to left field, even though last night the defensively challenged young man made a nice play crashing against the wall to steal extra bases from Casey Blake in the fifth.

What you know is that you have the possibility soon -- after Curt Schilling makes his second rehab start tomorrow -- of having six starting pitchers. Six pretty good starting pitchers.

"Things have a way of working themselves out," said Sox pitching coach John Farrell.

You know you have two guys -- Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon -- at the end of the bullpen that are lights out. You know you have an emerging righthanded set-up man in Manny Delcarmen and you're buoyed by the comeback of veteran Mike Timlin. You could upgrade your lefty situational man, someone like Pittsburgh's Damaso Marte over Javy Lopez, but you'd have to give up someone that you prefer to keep.

You also know the team chemistry is very good.

You know you have a manager in Terry Francona that has won a world championship and knows the buttons to push to maximize his pitching staff and his roster. Farrell was raving before last night's game about the way Francona has used the bullpen.

"Outstanding," said Farrell. "His matchups have been great. He's so prepared before every game as to what he's going to do."

What the snapshot told you is that you beat one of baseball's best pitchers and best teams, but you didn't hit much. So, if you're Epstein, you try to project what to do and who to bring in to make your offense a little more productive, remembering that in this particular snapshot, you haven't had David Ortiz in the lineup.

What also has to be considered if you're Epstein is that you know your biggest hitter, Ortiz, has physical issues. Certainly, he should have had his knee injury taken care of in the offseason, which would have needed a one-month rehab and then he would have been done with it.

Knowing your top slugger potentially could miss time, do you make a blockbuster deal and bring in Texas first baseman Mark Teixeira? If you do that, do you disrupt some team chemistry?

You also have to sort out the ramifications. What do you do with Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis? Do you have a rotation that would satisfy all of them? These are things you have to decide.

You could do something easy and bring in a bench player like Bobby Kielty, who was designated for assignment by Oakland Monday. You could trade Peña, even though attempts have not yet yielded a suitable solution.

You can just go along with the status quo and feel you have enough to win it.

If you took a vote of the players, they would opt for that. These players believe the solution is not to do anything. They think they can keep their lead intact, win the division, and do well in the playoffs.

It depends which snapshot you believe is most indicative of your team. And there'll be a couple of more snapshots before July 31 to help make your decision.

In 2004, it was far more clear Epstein needed to make a move. The Sox were in second place double-figures away from the Yankees. They were in danger of not making the playoffs. Then it all clicked and the momentum moved them through the playoffs and their historic win over the Yankees and their sweep of the Cardinals.

So they know how it's done.

But every trade deadline and blueprint for success is different.

It's different for them than the Indians, who are in a closer race with the Tigers, who continue to scout Eric Gagne. As well as Joe Borowski has performed, the Indians know they need another reliever. They also know they need another lefthanded hitter to replace injured outfielder Dave Dellucci (hamstring).

What a Catch-22 for the Sox. They beat the Indians, but the Yankees moved within 4 1/2 games of the wild-card lead.

After the Yankees brass met in Tampa yesterday there was much buzz that the Yanks were going to enter the Teixeira sweepstakes. The Red Sox have been in and out of it. Out of it when the Rangers' demands were too high, but back in the hunt now that there's a week remaining.

Both Los Angeles teams, as well as the Braves and Giants, also appear to be in. But if the Yankees are in, Epstein has another worry.

Last night the Sox won a great pitchers' duel. They are beating a good Cleveland team at a time when the Yankees are beating up on bad teams, such as Tampa Bay and Kansas City. In this next week, what is done -- and what isn't done -- to improve the team is paramount to the long-term success.

Yet some of the snapshots are extremely photogenic.

Looks can be deceiving.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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