Sox starters have unfinished business
When the offseason haul came in, the veteran stars of past seasons purchased at bargain prices, the accolades began. The Red Sox rotation was deemed - yes, mostly by the media - potentially the best in the American League.
Now, with three weeks left in the season, those proclamations seem a bit ridiculous. Or, if not ridiculous, they seem very, very far away.
The reality of the starting pitching has been far different from the predictions. Though Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, for the most part, have lived up to the hype, anchoring the starting staff throughout the season with a minimum of blips, the rest of the rotation has not been nearly so worry-free.
The two free agent signees have been jettisoned, John Smoltz and Brad Penny returning to their comfort zone in the National League.
In their place, the Sox signed a nearly retired pitcher in Paul Byrd, who sat out the first two- thirds of the season. Tim Wakefield has battled problems with his back and legs, getting three cortisone shots, and is still without a confirmed date for his next start.
Junichi Tazawa has succeeded and failed as a starter, perhaps promoted too soon.
Daisuke Matsuzaka has spent more time in Fort Myers, Fla., than in Boston, and is only now making his return.
And then there’s Clay Buchholz, doing his best to turn down the anxiety, play up to his promise, and settle the nerves of those responsible for putting together a 1-2-3 playoff rotation good enough to compete with the other giants of the AL.
“It hasn’t been easy,’’ catcher Jason Varitek said. “That’s the truth. It hasn’t been easy. Somebody’s had bumps or there’s been different people in and out.
“We have had to endure a lot. But good teams always have to.’’
They haven’t always had to do so.
The five pitchers in the 2004 rotation made all but five starts that season, when the Sox won the World Series. That’s not the case this year, as the Sox have gotten at least three starts from nine pitchers.
Beckett and Lester have taken all their turns, each making 29 starts. They are followed by Penny (24), Wakefield (19), Buchholz (12), Matsuzaka (8), Smoltz (8), Tazawa (4), and Byrd (3).
Buchholz’s emergence has made it easier for everyone in the organization to take a deep breath and perhaps feel more confident going forward. Over his past four starts, in which the Sox are undefeated, Buchholz is 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA. He has held opponents to a .172 batting average, and is making good on lost time, as well as making up for some of the ineffectiveness of the other starters.
“I don’t think it should get in the way,’’ manager Terry Francona said, of the issues with the starters.
“We don’t think we feel like we’re as thin maybe as it looks. Because it’s September, as long as Buchholz, Beckett, Lester, if they’re pitching the way they’re supposed to, you start filling in those other spots, it’s a little bit easier.
“If those guys stumble, then that’s when it looks a little bit harder. That’s what happened to us earlier in the year when we ran into those streaks. If Beckett and Lester lost, we ran into a problem. When they didn’t, we’re OK.’’
There remain unknowns, even at this point of the season. It is hard to say what the Sox will get from Wakefield, who is tentatively scheduled to pitch over the weekend in Baltimore. And then there’s Matsuzaka, who takes the ball tonight against the Angels in his first start in three months. He went 1-5 with an 8.23 ERA over his eight starts in Boston before undergoing his physique-altering stint in the minors.
“I’m very interested,’’ Varitek said. “I’ve seen his arm speed, he looks great, he looks strong. I just think that, honestly, people here need to get behind that this guy won us 18 games last year. Might not be in his first outing, but he has strength, he’ll help us.’’
That’s the hope. But the season hasn’t gone as planned for Matsuzaka, nor has it gone as planned for the rest of the staff. It won’t matter, though, if the Sox can make the playoffs with a strong top three in the rotation.
It’s not quite like 2006, when the Sox were forced into starting Kevin Jarvis and Jason Johnson in crucial games, but things have not exactly gone as planned.
“Every team goes through a lot during the course of a 162-game season,’’ general manager Theo Epstein said in an e-mail. “Adjusting to adversity and finding a way to evolve for the better is part of the process of the season these days.
“We still have a lot of work to do to get where we want to be.’’