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Strong-armed

Despite injuries and busts, Sox didn’t throw in towel

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / October 8, 2009

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They were one misfortune away. One oblique strain or pulled hamstring or line drive to the knee from the situation turning dire. The Red Sox were one more injury, or one more starter plagued by ineffectiveness, from searching for the 2009 version of Kevin Jarvis.

It was not what general manager Theo Epstein had planned after spending last winter signing low-cost, low-risk bodies to complete a starting rotation that appeared to go double-digits deep back when the team was running sprints in Fort Myers, Fla. He seemed to have it all, a rotation that was dominant at the top, solid through the middle, and stretched far enough that the team would have no trouble filling out starts the rest of the season.

Except it did. There went Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield and Justin Masterson and John Smoltz and Brad Penny and Junichi Tazawa. In came Paul Byrd, signed off the Little League field. The Sox neared a crisis point, but remained bolstered by the superb pitching of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett and, later, Clay Buchholz. Down the stretch, those three kept the Sox afloat as they found themselves one starter away from having a hole in their five-man rotation.

“I think when you look at our struggles to put a healthy starter out there on some nights and to keep five guys intact, especially in August and parts of September that were crunch time, I think there’s a deserved exhale that it didn’t really catch up with us,’’ Epstein said. “Because that’s not the way we want to go about it. We want to have surplus. We want to make choices in the rotation based on performance, not health, based on choosing between good alternatives, not scrounging for healthy bodies to throw innings.

“Yeah, there’s an exhale there.’’

Not that the Sox are alone in their struggle to stabilize their rotation. The Angels used 14 starters this season, as opposed to Boston’s 11. In each case, six pitchers started at least 10 games. In 2004, the Red Sox’ original starting five started all but five games.

There were moments when Epstein looked at the standings and scratched his head. No matter where they were - three games up, three games down - it didn’t seem like the Red Sox should be in that position. The general manager was spending a startling proportion of his time concerned about a rotation that had appeared solid in spring training, but lost bodies and effectiveness as the season wore on.

“I think we feel fortunate to have dodged that bullet,’’ Epstein said. “Also we feel optimistic about what we have, feel like we have two No. 1 starters in Beckett and Lester, feel like we have a guy who’s as good as anyone in baseball over the last 4 to 6 weeks in Clay Buchholz. We have Matsuzaka, who is a proven guy over the previous two years, who has given us probably more than we expected coming off the DL, and we have some alternatives to take the ball if one of those guys goes down.

“All in all, looking to October, we’re optimistic. But it certainly wasn’t a predictable path to get there.’’

Asked if the Sox were fortunate to be where they are, Lester said, “I wouldn’t say fortunate. I’d say that’s a testament to this team. You have guys step up, Taz, [Michael] Bowden, Buch . . . That’s a testament to not only the team but the organization, to prepare guys for that phone call to come up here and be ready to pitch. I think that makes us better. I think that makes us more prepared for the bad stuff when it does happen.’’

Coming out of spring training, the Sox had a full complement of pitchers, including an established ace in Beckett, a brilliant No. 2 in Lester, an 18-game winner in Matsuzaka, a future All-Star in Wakefield, and a former All-Star in Penny. Buchholz, author of a no-hitter in 2007, was waiting. Future Hall of Famer Smoltz was rehabbing. Masterson was in the bullpen. Plus, Tazawa had wowed in Fort Myers and Bowden was waiting for his chance as well.

It was just what the team wanted, solace in numbers and performance. They were set. Or not.

The rotation reached “almost a crisis situation at times,’’ according to Epstein. The Sox waited out some bad luck and poor pitching from their top two at the beginning of the season. After Beckett and Lester found their stride, “we only had about a month with them clicking on all cylinders until all of a sudden we looked up and didn’t have a third, fourth, or fifth starter that we could rely upon at the start of June.’’

Matsuzaka had already been on the disabled list and was headed back to Fort Myers. Smoltz still wasn’t ready, and Penny was allowing three or so runs in five or six innings each start. While Wakefield was pitching himself to his first All-Star appearance, others were faltering.

And that wasn’t even the low point. In a six-week period, Smoltz and Penny were both designated for assignment and Wakefield landed on the disabled list, with Matsuzaka still rehabbing. The Sox were forced to bring up Tazawa earlier than expected. His season ended in September with a trip to the DL.

“It’s been really stressful during the stretch run,’’ Epstein said. “Normally, when you think about a stretch run of the season, you think about being at sort of full health and having a full arsenal and having tough decisions to make between - do we throw that promising rookie out in the five hole, or the experienced veteran in the five hole, who might not be as talented, but has more guile?

“Here, there was a stretch in the middle of a pennant race where we’re looking for warm bodies to get out there and guys to fill out our rotation. We looked at every offday as a blessing because it gave us an opportunity to go from five starters to four for a turn through the rotation.’’

And then, just when the Sox needed them most, Lester was hit by a line drive that just missed his knee and Beckett had to be scratched with back spasms that required cortisone injections. With those two making their final starts of the season and appearing healthy, the team is in a good spot entering the first round.

Some pitching attrition was to be expected. The Sox went into their pact with Smoltz, 42, knowing he would give them a half-season, at best, and that he was far from a sure thing given his age and surgically repaired shoulder. Wakefield has battled injuries each of the last four seasons. Penny was coming off a year of injury and little success.

So they were prepared, they thought. They had the numbers, they thought.

“Every team has attrition,’’ Epstein said. “Ours just seemed to happen at the same time, and combined with some poor performances, put us in a vulnerable state for longer than we would have liked . . . I think we dodged some bullets that if we had to shut someone down for some reason, we would have thrown up a minor league free agent who is not having a good year into the rotation in a pennant race, which is something you never want to do.

“There were a week or two there where that was realistic, but we got through it without having to do that.’’

They got through it and somehow ended up exactly where they were supposed to be. They finished the regular season with 95 wins, the total Epstein and the Sox target each season.

“It hasn’t been without its challenges, whether that’s been a couple of injuries, a couple of personnel decisions, but I think we’re in good shape,’’ pitching coach John Farrell said. “You start with a plan knowing that options are going to be needed to go to when situations arise.

“I think [in] 2007, we did have more consistency from the five guys we began the season with, both from a health [standpoint] and overall performance, but you have to work to anticipate that changes are bound to happen. It’s not often that you begin with a group of 12 and you end with the same group.’’

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

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