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Turns for the better with Red Sox' starters

Two latest outings are providing hope

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 19, 2009
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The two starts were hardly dominant. Josh Beckett allowed three runs (two earned) over seven innings, a good performance, though not great. Justin Masterson got one out in the seventh inning, having given up two earned runs in a game the Red Sox would lose.

Neither performance was reminiscent of the outstanding outing that Beckett had in the season opener, or of any number of Tim Wakefield starts this season, rare moments of light in an otherwise lackluster first six weeks.

And yet there was hope. With the Sox starters pitching as poorly as they have this season, there was the thought that things could turn around with those performances in Seattle over the weekend. Of course, there was also the thought that having two straight good starts means little in a season full of too many runs in too few innings, as the Sox spent a month and a half putting far more pressure on a stellar bullpen.

All this, and an ERA that sits at the bottom of the American League and near the bottom of Major League Baseball, from a staff promoted as potentially one of the best in the game before the season.

"It just shows you that what everyone scripts out at the beginning of the year, you never know what's going to happen," Mike Lowell said. "It sounds like a cliché, but you do take it day by day and see what happens."

But what has happened, so far, has not been good for the Sox. Despite a deep and talented rotation, featuring pitchers who finished second in Cy Young voting in 2007 (Beckett) and fourth in 2008 (Daisuke Matsuzaka), and another who dominated in the second half of last season (Jon Lester), the starters hardly have pitched up to expectations.

Instead, the six who have taken turns in the rotation - Beckett, Matsuzaka, Lester, Wakefield, Masterson, and Brad Penny - have combined for a 15-12 record and a 5.76 ERA, the latter number shrinking with Masterson's 6 1/3 innings and two earned runs Sunday against the Mariners.

But perhaps there are signs the Sox could be pulling out of their funk. Not only did Masterson pitch well Sunday - though it was likely his last start for the time being, with Matsuzaka ready to return from the disabled list - but Beckett pitched seven full innings Saturday night. It was the first time since May 4 that a Sox starter had gone seven.

"I think hopefully when we get back home, we can get into that nice rhythm and reel off some victories," said Lowell. "We have to take that as a positive that we got back-to-back quality starts from our guys. Our pen's been so good. It seems like we haven't given them all the opportunity to be as good as they are for the numbers that they're putting up."

While the Sox rank just ahead of the Phillies and tied with the Orioles for 28th in the majors in starters' ERA, the bullpen is third best in the majors at 3.02.

But all the warm-and-fuzzies of the last two outings by starters must be balanced against the start by Lester Friday night. His pitching was so frustrating to him that Lester said, "I'm not performing right now. I'm letting the team down," and he called his performance "inexcusable."

"He is very close," said catcher Jason Varitek, though Lester didn't seem to agree Friday night. "I think he's still learning himself, learning his execution, and it's just steps."

No one, including Lester himself, knows exactly how many steps he is from being the pitcher who became an ace as the season wore on in 2008. Or whether Beckett will revert to 2006 form or 2007 form or 2008 form. Or whether Wakefield can sustain what, outside of his last start, has been a remarkable beginning to the season.

Still, there is hope.

"I think it was great," Masterson said of the weekend starts. "I think if anything the starters are starting to catch a few breaks. I think they're going to continue to build off of that.

"It's always good when a starter can set a tone for the guys coming in from the bullpen, and it's also great for the defense and the offense as you go through a game."

Varitek said that two of the starters - Lester and Masterson - are still "babies" in terms of development, that they need time and work. He said, too, that he has noticed some aspects of the starting staff is improving, like "our overall command of the strike zone is continuing to get better. That's the key."

Better, sure. But will that last? Will that be good enough?

There's a belief from the team. But the reality begins again tonight, when the one bright spot out of the rotation, Wakefield, takes the mound against the Blue Jays.

"We hadn't had that very much this year," Varitek said of lengthy outings. "I'll take our chances with that bullpen [when we're] able to get guys through seventh and not just the fifth or sixth. I'll take my chances with the guys we can throw out there."

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