CLEVELAND - Told you so?
That will be the consensus response of Red Sox Nation this morning. Told you the Sox should have gone with Josh Beckett on three days' rest rather than Tim Wakefield. You can say it wasn't hindsight, either. You can say the move was criticized from the moment it was etched in stone.
If we had every bit of information and can assume everyone was healthy - and that's a big if - then you can gloat over the fact you were right. Was there something that affected the decision to go with the normal rotation and not Beckett? Was the decision based on not wanting to divert any of the pitchers - particularly Curt Schilling and Daisuke Matsuzaka - from their normal rest? Was it based on some hidden injury (a stiff back?) that might have influenced Francona's decision?
While some of those scenarios were floating around the ballpark last night, there was no confirmation that it was anything but a decision to go with the status quo. Do what got you there.
Francona will take the hit on this one if the Sox fail to overtake the Indians in the American League Championship Series. Whether it was completely Francona's decision is unknown as well. In this day and age of micromanaging, the decision is often made by "the organization." It used to be the manager made the final decision on such matters, but for the most part - with the exceptions being Tony La Russa and in most cases Joe Torre and Bobby Cox - it is a consensus.
If you believe teams shouldn't deviate from what they do in the regular season, then you're OK with the decision to go with Wakefield, who lost, 7-3. Certainly there was little questioning of the decision within the team.
Mike Timlin endorsed it completely the night before. Jason Varitek, Doug Mirabelli, everyone was thumbs-up on going with Wakefield. Why? Because he deserved it. He won 17 games and had missed the Division Series with his back/shoulder ailment.
The Red Sox were very careful about when and if they were going to bring him back. Wakefield passed a very tough litmus test all Sox players must pass to get back on the field. The Sox might be the most cautious team in baseball when it comes to making sure a player is 100 percent before he returns from injury, especially a pitcher. A perfect example is the pre-playoff decision to shut down Clay Buchholz because of a fatigued arm. On many other teams, Buchholz would have been on the roster.
Anyway, there was nothing wrong with Wakefield's performance for four innings; the Indians couldn't have hit him with 50 bats. Ask Travis Hafner, who struck out four times on the night and three times against Wakefield. But it was that screwy fifth inning, coupled with the Red Sox offense's inability to get on track against Paul Byrd, that did them in.
Each Red Sox starting pitcher in the last three games has gone only 4 2/3 innings. In the entire 2007 regular season, Sox starters never went more than two consecutive starts of fewer than five innings. In the last three games, Schilling, Matsuzaka, and Wakefield have combined for a 9.00 ERA.
But as Varitek sees it, "Every one of our starters has been one pitch away from pitching a brilliant game."
Interesting way to look at it. Fact is, at this time of year, the Sox needed to come up big with their staff. They have not. You can talk about pitching Beckett, but when would it catch up with him? He's made a lot of starts and pitched a lot of innings. At some point, the rest of your staff has to come up big, and in this case, it has not.
The Indians ran into it in the first two games when C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona were extremely hittable. They managed to get one win at Fenway, which was huge considering how the two pitched. Over the last two games, Jake Westbrook and Byrd have pitched very well. If Byrd hadn't had such a long layoff in the fifth while the Indians surged, he may have been more effective when he came out for the sixth.
Wakefield conceded that his knuckleball wasn't quite as good in the fifth as it had been in the first four innings. There's never a rhyme or reason as to why. He knows in that fifth there were balls that bounced strangely that could have been outs. Given the way the Sox came back with three consecutive home runs, Wakefield's performance wasn't as bad as Manny Delcarmen's. The Sox could have survived Wakefield losing it if Delcarmen had done his job.
To win a seven-game series, a starting staff has to be on its game. It must produce quality starts, whether it's three starters or four starters. Only Beckett has produced for the Sox thus far, and to think he could have done it again on three days' rest after a long season isn't the most realistic scenario.
The bottom line is, it wasn't the decision not to pitch Beckett that cost the Sox last night's game. Starting pitching was the strength of this team all season. At the worst possible time, it's become a thorn. There is little time to correct this.
Beckett, when asked before the game whether he could have pitched last night, said, "I don't get paid to make those decisions. I already said that. Tim Wakefield deserves to start tonight and that's why he's starting."
All four starters deserved to start, but so far, only one has done the job. Who ever would have thought that? Who ever would have thought the second-best starting rotation would pitch so poorly?
Told you so? No. Nobody expected that.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org