Great way to start
Wakefield lauds Red Sox rotation
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Tim Wakefield, a hardcore baseball man, was dipping tobacco at 8:10 yesterday morning as he sat in front of his locker and contemplated the start of the season.
Cardboard boxes and empty blue duffel bags were scattered around the clubhouse as players packed their belongings before the final spring training game in Florida.
The team will play one last exhibition game in Washington today before opening the season at Fenway Park tomorrow night against the Yankees.
This will be Wakefield’s 18th year in the majors, all but two with the Red Sox. His perspective is unmatched and backed with the credibility of two World Series rings and 189 career victories.
So when Wakefield says the Red Sox could have the best rotation he’s ever been a part of, it’s something to pay attention to.
“It was very good in 2004,’’ he said, ticking off the names of Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, and Bronson Arroyo. “The reason it was good is that we all stayed healthy and made all our starts. If we can do something like that again, we could be even better. That’s how much I think of these guys.’’
In Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Wakefield, and Clay Buchholz, the Red Sox have a blend of experience, youth, accomplishment and promise. A sixth starter, Daisuke Matsuzaka, will be on the disabled list but is expected to be ready the end of the month. His return could shift Wakefield to the bullpen or lead to the team using a modified six-man rotation.
“It’s not just depth; it’s good depth,’’ Wakefield said. “The first three guys are all No. 1s and Buchholz probably will be some day. Daisuke has shown people what he can do when he’s healthy and I’ve done OK.’’
Wakefield was being modest. He was an All-Star for the first time last season before a herniated disk in his back derailed his season. But Wakefield returned from surgery to post a 3.66 ERA in five spring training starts.
“Wake has pitched as well as any of us this spring,’’ Lester said. “Everybody was wondering how he was going to feel physically and he has been great.’’
Beckett, who is close to agreeing to a contract extension, was given the honor of starting tomorrow. Lester and Lackey will follow against the Yankees before Wakefield faces the Royals Friday. After Beckett makes his second start, Buchholz will enter the rotation.
Buchholz retired the final 16 batters he faced in yesterday’s 7-2 victory against the Nationals at City of Palms Park. The 25-year-old righthander finished spring training on a high note after an uneven start, allowing one run over six innings.
“He was attacking in the zone and staying ahead,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “His last two starts were what we wanted to see.’’
The Red Sox are expecting Buchholz to blossom. He is 12-14 with a 4.91 ERA over parts of three seasons, interspersing brilliance with frustration. But after a strong finish in 2009, he was locked into place in the rotation before spring training started.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for just about everybody,’’ Buchholz said. “Just with the names of the top three, which everybody talks about. It’s hard to get pitching matchups with two aces going for each team and we have three guys like that at the top of our rotation.
“If everybody throws like they can, it can be an awesome, awesome season to be a part of.’’
In Wakefield’s view, health will determine that. The quintet in 2004 started 157 of 162 games, never missing a start.
“Obviously that’s what you try to accomplish but very rarely does it happen,’’ Wakefield said. “That’s why you need backup guys. But we have a lot of moving parts. In any given series you can see three totally different pitchers in terms of style. But it only works if everybody is able to pitch.’’
Wakefield believes the addition of Lackey will increase those odds.
“He makes us so much deeper, he’s a No. 1 and he’ll take a lot of pressure off Beckett and Lester,’’ Wakefield said. “He came in here and fit right in and impressed everybody. You can see why they wanted him as badly as they did. He changes the way we look as a team.’’
A potential problem is how Francona will work in Matsuzaka once he is ready to pitch. Wakefield does not expect the Sox to use a six-man rotation.
“I look at it this way, if it’s a problem, then it’s a good problem for us as a team to have too many starters,’’ he said. “Those things usually work themselves out one way or another.
“I’m excited because we have a chance to be very good. At this time of the year, that’s all you can ask for.’’