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Lester, Beckett provide new 1-2 punch

Jacoby Ellsbury reaches a remarkable milestone in the first inning, his 70th steal, the most in the majors this season. Jacoby Ellsbury reaches a remarkable milestone in the first inning, his 70th steal, the most in the majors this season. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / October 5, 2009

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Throughout much of the season - with the exception of the seven-out start in which he got nailed by a line drive against the Yankees - Jon Lester has been the ace of the Red Sox staff. More than that, Lester has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, author of a brilliant stretch beginning at the end of May that solidified a standing made clear by a dominant 2008.

That position was made official yesterday as the Red Sox announced their postseason rotation for the first three games of the American League Division Series against the Angels.

Lester will start Game 1, ahead of Josh Beckett, in a move that has much to do with his ability to bounce back if needed, but also much to do with the way he is pitching. Clay Buchholz will start Game 3 at Fenway Park.

In a span of 22 starts since May 31, he has a 2.31 ERA with 163 strikeouts in 114 innings, while opponents have .213 against him.

“What it really came down to is the fact that when you look at how our rotation was set up - and Beckett knows we feel this way - because for us to get where we want to go we’re going to have to lean on both of them,’’ manager Terry Francona said after the Sox’ 12-7 win over the Indians in the regular-season finale. “To flip-flop them around would have one guy on normal rest, another guy on [seven days’ rest]. That doesn’t make sense to any of us, including Beckett and Lester.

“As we go forward . . . we think Lester is situated where he can come back on short rest and that would have, say, Beckett if there’s a Game 5 on regular rest. There’s a lot of options that are open to us that we’re interested in exploring.’’

So even though Beckett’s performances and numbers verge on incredible in the postseason (7-2, 2.90 ERA in 87 innings), he will not pick up the ball until Game 2 Friday. Although Beckett has had an up-and-down season, he has a 3.67 ERA since June 10, and has allowed a .243 batting average against.

“I want to do whatever helps us win,’’ Beckett said after his start Saturday. “That’s the key to the whole postseason is to put yourself in the best possible position to win, whether it be a five-game series or seven-game series. We’ve discussed everything, and I’m OK with whatever they decide to do. That’s [Francona’s] job. I’m glad I don’t have that job.’’

But either way, the Sox are set up well with their 1-2 starters heading into the postseason.

“People talk about power arms in the playoffs,’’ shortstop Jed Lowrie said. “I can’t think of much more power than Beckett and Lester. If those guys do what they’re capable of doing, we’re shaping up pretty good.’’

The Sox still don’t know what day Game 1 with the Angels will be. Series A begins Wednesday, and Series B starts Thursday - but the Yankees, by virtue of their record, don’t have to choose until one hour after the Tigers-Twins elimination game tomorrow night.

Francona declined to name a Game 4 starter, potentially a necessity if the Sox end up with Series B. There is the chance that the team could bring Lester back in that game, though it would be more likely the team would go with Daisuke Matsuzaka.

For now, Francona is sticking to the first three games, the first two of which will be played at 9:37 p.m. Thursday and Friday, if the Yankees (as expected) pick Series A.

One player who is no longer an option is Tim Wakefield. Francona said the pitcher will not be available for the first round of the playoffs.

“I think it’s kind of obvious, the situation he’s in,’’ Francona said. “He’s been trying to go out there on kind of one leg. The thing we also talked to him about is not shelving his season. You can go one day where you feel good about your pitching, and then something happens. Wake has that ability, whether it’s two weeks from now, to throw a pretty good game. And he’s on board with that, which we appreciate a lot.

“He’s not going to be in the first round, but that doesn’t mean something couldn’t happen. We all understand where he’s at. It’s been very difficult for him physically. But we didn’t want to just shut him down either, because he could still play a role.’’

Asked about the situation, Wakefield didn’t stop to talk, just said, “Great. I’ll be ready.’’

For now, though, Wakefield is on the back burner. The Sox instead turn to their aces, a pair of pitchers who have thrown well enough to be matched up with anyone.

“I think we’ve got to feel great about it, I think especially after the line drive Jonny took, and Josh comes in with a stiff back,’’ Mike Lowell said. “Those were potential big setbacks for us. So the fact that they feel good and are healthy, I think we’re in the position we want to be in.

“I feel like if a team outplays us with our best guys on the mound, then they deserve it. But I definitely like our chances.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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