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Excitement is starting to develop

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 21, 2010

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OAKLAND, Calif. — This afternoon, on what should be a bright, sunny day at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum in the series finale against the A’s, the Red Sox will begin to trot out their starting rotation as they originally intended.

Clay Buchholz, returning from a hamstring injury, will take the mound for the Sox against Oakland’s Gio Gonzalez, and after John Lackey starts tomorrow night against the Mariners in Seattle, Josh Beckett will make his return from a back ailment Friday at Safeco Field.

When and if Buchholz and Beckett make it through their starts, there will be no more issues regarding wounded Boston pitchers. At least that’s the hope.

“We’re not there yet,’’ cautioned pitching coach John Farrell. “We think things are going to get better. We certainly hope it.

“We thought when our organization put this staff together that it would be one of the strengths of our ball club. We’ve done it the hard way, and a few of our guys have been hurt, but we cross our fingers we don’t sustain any more injuries the rest of the way and we can get through the season with the five starters we thought we were going to go with [plus Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka].

“And don’t forget, having Wake [last night’s starter Tim Wakefield] has been huge for us, being able to insert him in the rotation.’’

The Sox will continue to be shorthanded offensively with catcher Victor Martinez trying hard to come back soon and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and second baseman Dustin Pedroia not expected back until early August.

But this team was largely built on a rotation that should have been second to none. Because of injuries, it has fallen short of that.

But while the Sox hurlers get healthy, the Yankees’ are falling apart, with Andy Pettitte out for more than a month because of a groin injury, A.J. Burnett imploding, and Phil Hughes’s innings being monitored. So here we go.

Will this start the cycle during which the $47 million devoted this year to Lester, Buchholz, Lackey, Beckett, and Matsuzaka will begin to pay off and the staff will start dominating opponents?

Whether this grand plan can be executed to perfection is another story. But it certainly needs to be if the team is going to succeed.

We certainly know what’s ahead for the Yankees. They’ll compensate for the loss of Pettitte by likely making a deal for another starting pitcher.

Cliff Lee was their target because the Yankees probably would have been able to re-sign him (and he still may go there this offseason as a free agent because he won’t be staying in Texas).

But whether New York lands Houston’s Roy Oswalt, who currently has a minor ankle contusion, or Arizona’s Dan Haren, who isn’t pitching well, they’ll wind up with someone.

But the Red Sox’ rotation should now be in full force again, which means Wakefield will wind up in the bullpen.

Lester and Buchholz have emerged as tough young guns and can be seen as the front end of the rotation.

Beckett has incentive to recapture his old form after being out for almost two months because of a back strain. He didn’t feel great about his last start at Pawtucket, but for better or worse he’s back in the majors, and he needs to be the pitcher we saw in 2007 for all of this to work.

Matsuzaka, who has been about as high-maintenance a pitcher as the Sox ever have had, has put together two very good starts. If he has learned to economize, if he continues to exhibit unhittable stuff, and if he can stay away from injuries, then he’s not only the best No. 5 starter in the game, but the Red Sox are almost guaranteed to give it a run for the wild card.

About Matsuzaka, Farrell said, “I think it says that we’ve got a pitcher who throws 92-93 who has started to flash mid-90s. We’ve changed his pregame a little bit the past three starts and he’s come out with good first innings, which had been a problem for him in the past. He’s pitched very well lately.’’

Farrell said Buchholz’s emergence has really added depth to the rotation. Although Lackey has been up and down, his veteran presence has been huge. Farrell and the other pitchers admire the way Lackey has battled, even when he hasn’t had his best stuff. That’s a lesson for all the pitchers.

However, if there are more breakdowns, forget it. It just wasn’t meant to be.

Even with the planned rotation rarely together for many turns this season, the Sox had managed the fourth-best record in the American League entering last night, so it stands to reason that with the group intact, that record will be maintained or even improved.

Apparently, the brass feels this way, too.

Nowhere on general manager Theo Epstein’s shopping list is an entry for a starting pitcher. He’d love a reliever, a backup catcher, an outfielder. But a starter is not a priority unless there’s another injury.

The planned starting five was only together for about a three-week period from the start of May, when Matsuzaka came off the disabled list, to about May 21, when Beckett began having his back issues. The team went 11-8 during that time, much better than its 11-13 start. A chance for this rotation to pitch together for the next 2 1/2 months bodes well for the Sox.

Having the rotation together also allows Epstein to entertain the possibility of Felix Doubront becoming the lefty specialist out of the bullpen if the GM can’t acquire one before the deadline. It allows him to take Wakefield out of the rotation and keep him in a reserve/spot starter role, which provides protection if someone should go down.

“I think what’s been a great source of pride for our starters and our whole team is that fact we’ve had to use so many different combinations of players and so many guys have contributed to us staying in the race,’’ Farrell said. “Sure, I think everyone is excited about having our starting five out there. I think there’s a bond between the players and pitchers on this team that’s been created because of the adversity we’ve gone through.’’

It all sounds great on paper.

“Now we have to show it on the mound,’’ Farrell said. “I know Josh has been out a while and can’t wait to get out there and take his normal [turn] the rest of the season. Clay can’t wait to take the mound again and he’s rested and throwing the ball really well.’’

Here it is, the rotation as it was intended. Coming soon, hopefully: the restored lineup.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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