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Sox rotation may not spin wheels with option of Lester

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / September 30, 2008
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When Mike Lowell learned that Josh Beckett had injured his right oblique in a side session Friday, and that he would not be starting in the Red Sox' upcoming American League Division Series until Game 3, Lowell had one thought: "Oh [darn]."

"The second thing was, 'How bad was it?' " Lowell said. "He said they feel like he'll be as close to full strength as possible by Game 3; I guess that's better than being out for the postseason. But he's definitely a guy that's very important to us. We need him to do well in the playoffs, but by no means are we replacing him with someone who doesn't have talent, or who is not capable of doing a good job. So I think that's something we can feel good about."

Lowell is in a unique position to understand Beckett's injury on this team, having suffered his own oblique strain in August, and also in a unique position to understand the pitcher's postseason importance, having seen him with both the Sox and Marlins in the playoffs. As for Lowell's oblique injury, it took him from Aug. 13 to Sept. 5 to return from the injury, but it appears the pitcher's is far less severe.

Beckett, who was in the clubhouse yesterday, declined to speak with reporters.

"They're saying that kind of immediately he felt a little better, maybe that something was tight," Lowell said. "I'm sure he's going to go out there if he feels like he can help us out. If he's not, I think they'll be pretty smart about it."

Beckett is scheduled to play catch today, and throw a side session Thursday. His Game 3 start will be Sunday.

So, while it clearly is a disappointment that Beckett will not be starting until Game 3, there's also a confidence in new Game 1 starter Jon Lester. Lester, after all, has been the team's best pitcher all season. He has anchored the rotation, through two stints on the disabled list for Beckett, and has dazzled opposing batters, including in his no-hitter in May.

"There's no getting around what Beckett has done in postseason play, not only for us but for the Marlins," manager Terry Francona said. "I think we're all looking forward to Jon Lester maybe making his time. He's been so good the last four months of the year. This is an exciting time.

"We love what Beckett can do, and we respect what Beckett can do. [We're] starting to get that feeling about Lester."

Lester got another piece of good news yesterday, being named the American League pitcher of the month for September. During that time, Lester went 4-1 with a 2.14 ERA and 28 strikeouts in five starts. Lester also won the award in July, when he went 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA. Overall this season, he was 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA. The 24-year-old will address the media today in Anaheim, Calif.

Those numbers aren't too shabby, especially after he began the season still struggling to break through. In his first six starts, Lester was 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA. Since then, he's 15-4 with a 2.82 ERA.

Francona yesterday recalled moments during the winter meetings when pitching coach John Farrell wanted to express his point about Lester's potential so fervently that he banged on the table. And, as Francona said, "I think we've actually been kind of prophetic. I think we've all said that this is what we thought [he would be]."

For now, Lester is one of the better pitchers in the AL, and certainly one of the best lefthanders. He has brought his team through numerous storms this season, and is poised to do it once again during at least the first round of the postseason against the Angels.

And it's not like Lester is new to the postseason. He pitched twice in relief in the American League Championship Series in 2007, and took the win in the clinching game of the World Series, allowing just three hits and no runs in 5 2/3 innings in Game 4 in Colorado.

So, along with Daisuke Matsuzaka as the Sox' Game 2 starter, the pair will try to assuage the fears of those who think the Sox are not the same without Beckett leading the charge. Sure, those incredible postseason numbers (6-2, 1.73 ERA) are almost impossible to top. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the Sox can't compete with the Angels, even as they wait for Sunday to see Beckett.

"He means a tremendous amount," Jason Varitek said. "But once again, you have to have other people give you quality starts. It just can't rely on his shoulders. We do that before we get the ball to Josh, and then you get Josh in a situation where he's healthy in the right spot. Then you have double trouble."

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