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Pitching seems to be in order

Using Wakefield a key to flexibility

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / September 24, 2009

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - When he explained the decision to start Tim Wakefield next Tuesday, Red Sox manager Terry Francona twice used the phrase “without taking anything for granted.’’ The second time, he knocked on his wooden desk.

No matter how much he couched the delivery, it was clear Francona had scheduled Wakefield’s next start with an eye toward the playoffs. Wakefield, after hobbling through only his third start since the All-Star break Monday night, will pitch Tuesday, the manager said last night. The appearance will allow rest for the Sox’ front-line starters and flexibility for Francona in aligning his playoff rotation.

With last night’s win over the Royals, the Red Sox have a magic number of five to clinch the American League wild card and are six games behind the Yankees in the AL East. With 11 games in 11 days remaining, they can begin to map out their plan for the Division Series. One key is penciling in Wakefield.

“It opens [things] up,’’ Francona said. “We can do whatever we really want to do, which is kind of what we’re trying to accomplish here.’’

Josh Beckett, last night’s starter, will pitch Monday to kick off the final week of the season. The Red Sox would then have several options in play for Beckett depending on three factors: How much rest he needs, whether they want him or Jon Lester to pitch Game 1 of the ALDS, and when their ALDS starts.

After Beckett makes his start, the Red Sox could let him rest until the ALDS, which will begin Oct. 7 or 8, therefore giving him eight or nine days off.

The way the final week’s pitching schedule shakes out, though, the Sox could plan to start Lester for Game 1. Lester’s final start of the season will likely come next Thursday, giving him five or six days of rest before Game 1. Beckett could throw an abbreviated start Oct. 3 and pitch Game 2 - which will be on Oct. 9 regardless - on five days’ rest.

Under such a scenario, both pitchers would be properly rested. If the Division Series lasted a full five games, both Lester and Beckett would each make two starts.

While Beckett holds senior standing in the rotation and started Opening Day, Lester has been perhaps been the best pitcher in the majors since May ended, going 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA. The Red Sox have won Lester’s past seven starts. Beckett, meanwhile, endured a recent month of mediocre starts. When healthy, Beckett carries a legendary postseason reputation, but the Sox were 3-4 in his last seven starts entering last night.

For now, the point is not who will pitch when; it is simply that the Sox have the options. They can thank Wakefield, who has been pitching on one healthy leg while he fights a fragmented disk in his back that will require surgery at the end of the season.

Wakefield needed 16 days between his previous outing and Monday’s start, in which he allowed five runs in five innings on seven walks in a driving rainstorm. This time, Wakefield is taking seven days off between starts.

“He was struggling last time, real bad,’’ Francona said. “Again, he may not make the start. But I think we think he’s going to be OK. We’d like to have somewhat of a target so we can place everybody else. That’s kind of what we’re doing.’’

If Wakefield’s condition worsens, Michael Bowden would be a candidate to make the Tuesday start. Bowden has been pitching out of the bullpen, and he worked a scoreless inning Monday and Tuesday. Bowden has been keeping his arm ready for longer innings on days he does not pitch in games.

“I could easily stretch it out, without a problem,’’ Bowden said. “That would be fun to get the start, get some innings.’’

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com.

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