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No need to throw in towel on staff

A double play to end the sixth inning has Jon Lester, who ended up going seven, pumped as he leaves the mound. A double play to end the sixth inning has Jon Lester, who ended up going seven, pumped as he leaves the mound. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Nick Cafardo
May 10, 2010

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The lack of strong starting pitching has caused a panic attack in this town. It’s been in hibernation early this season, but c’mon, they’ve got it.

The Red Sox raised their record to 16-16 last night and perhaps it’ll keep going like this for a while, but eventually, as manager Terry Francona says, the players will reach their level.

Jon Lester sure has.

Nobody started worse than Lester, who in his first three starts allowed 15 earned runs in 16 innings. The Sox would have been justified sending him back to Pawtucket if they wanted to send a strong message to a failing team. Lester has since turned it around to the point where he is the ace of this staff. If you’re giving up on the season based on the Sox’ starting pitching, don’t.

It’s not logical to think their starting rotation can be this bad for another 130 games. There’s too long of a track record of excellence by Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Lester. There’s a smaller sample size for Daisuke Matsuzaka, but he did win 33 games in his first two years in the majors. Will that level of pitching return? It says here it will.

The Sox have not been fun to be around this season. General manager Theo Epstein, who has won two world championships and made the playoffs six out of seven years, is being portrayed as a bumbling fool by some. Not so fast. Maybe Adrian Beltre has been a horror show in the field, but he’s been productive at the plate. Marco Scutaro has leveled off. Mike Cameron has been hurt for most of his tenure but appears to be on the way back. Lackey was a very good signing, as evidenced by his five of six quality starts.

If the Yankees and Rays have no dips the remainder of the season, the Sox will not make the playoffs. But that’s simply not realistic. Remember, the Yankees were 15-17 at this time last season.

Beckett, following a bizarre outing Friday when he went on a hit-by-pitch spree, obviously needs a lot of fixing. He leads American League pitchers with 52 hits and 34 earned runs allowed, and that can’t continue. The Sox offered him a contract extension because they knew there’s little top-of-the-line pitching, other than Cliff Lee, coming up in free agency. So they took a calculated gamble and tied up Beckett with an exorbitant four-year, $68 million extension, feeling established pitching is simply too hard to find.

Is there a possibility a Sox pitcher or two will have a bad year? Of course. That can be said of any staff. Look at the stinker A.J. Burnett threw last night against the Sox. It can happen.

Fact is, if you believed this was a top rotation when the season started, you should believe they will get to that level before all is said and done. There’s simply too much talent there to think otherwise.

Lester feels there will eventually be a snowball effect for the starters, which will lead to a strong staff, far from the 13th (out of 14th in the AL) ranking in ERA the starters had entering last night’s game.

Lester won his third consecutive start, and over his last four he’s 3-0 with a 0.98 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings. His ERA has improved from 8.44 to 3.71. As Francona said, “It seems every year he’s got to get over that hump.’’ The hump has been conquered.

Lester believes his fellow starters will soon reach their levels. Lackey already has, and “Buck [Clay Buchholz] had early success and he had a rough outing his last time, but he’ll bounce back,’’ Lester said. “I think we’ll do a good job and feed off each other and put this behind us.’’

Lester said the difference between his current run of success and his first three starts is “I’m executing my pitches, especially with runners on base. Like [last night], I’d get a popup or a ground ball where before I’d give up a double or a single and runs would score. I gave up two home runs. I went 2-0 to Alex [Rodriguez] and I decided I wasn’t going to pitch around him, but he hit a ball up in the zone and he hit it out, but I just wanted to get ahead.’’

Lester has one of the nastiest cut fastballs around and used it wisely last night, often when he was ahead in the count. Lester is pitching on all cylinders now. He’s eliminated his mistakes, and when he did allow homers to A-Rod and Nick Swisher, they came with nobody on base.

The obvious goal is for the starters to go seven innings and preserve the bullpen. It seemed that the Sox had hit a good cycle during the sweep of the Angels, but lapsed in the first two games against the Yankees, before Lester proved to be a stopper. The Sox are 10th in the league in walks allowed. Some things still need to get significantly better, but reducing base runners has to top the list.

“That’s a very good pitching staff, I don’t care what the numbers say right now and what the performances have been,’’ said Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira. “That staff is going to be one of the best by the time we come back here.’’

Can’t really argue with that. All you have to do is work down the lists of starting pitchers in both leagues to realize this staff still has the potential to be one of the best.

If you believed it at the start, don’t let 32 games of .500 baseball change your mind.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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