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Spinning it positively

Rotation problem just good fortune

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 28, 2011

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DETROIT — The proverbial “good problem to have’’ is about to appear in the coming days when the Red Sox get John Lackey back from the disabled list and need to kick one of their effective replacement starters to the bullpen.

It would appear that Alfredo Aceves is the one to go, while Tim Wakefield, who allowed five hits and two runs over seven innings in last night’s 6-3 win over the Detroit Tigers, would remain in the rotation.

In the absence of both Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Sox staff has flourished. In the last week, the Sox have received two very good starts apiece from Aceves and Wakefield. Aceves pitched 11 innings, allowing two runs. Wakefield gave up three runs over 13 2/3 innings.

“I don’t think it’s unusual. I think it’s a blessing for us that it happened so far and hopefully we can continue to do so,’’ Wakefield said.

It becomes more remarkable by the day that a 44-year-old can pitch deep into games. Wakefield was going to be held to 85 or so pitches last night; he was at 83 after seven. He probably could have gone longer, but the Sox are mindful of his age and the fact they need him to stay healthy.

Wakefield hasn’t always enjoyed being in the bullpen, and his role earlier this season was limited to mostly mop-up duty, not exactly conducive to getting into a rhythm. Even as a spot starter, it’s hard for Wakefield to get a feel for his pitches.

The Sox are getting righthanded veteran Kevin Millwood ready to go as insurance. There were encouraging evaluations yesterday in Fort Myers, Fla., and according to general manager Theo Epstein, Millwood, who was signed last week, could soon be working in Portland or Pawtucket.

But for now, the Sox have to be thrilled with what they have.

“We’re talking about that, the four starts they’ve given us,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “They haven’t been able to go nine but they’ve been really solid starts and it gives your club a huge lift.’’

Obviously, the Sox rely heavily on their front three of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Josh Beckett, but to have consistent starters at the 4 and 5 spots helps save the bullpen. Sox starters have allowed two or fewer runs in each of the last seven games.

It’s difficult to break up such a good thing, but the Sox will reinsert Lackey into the rotation given they’re paying him $17 million this season.

Wakefield fought early mechanical problems last night but still looked good.

“I was fighting my mechanics in the first couple of innings, but was able to make some adjustments after the second inning and was able to cruise through in to the seventh,’’ he said. “I’m just doing what I can to help us win games. They asked me to fill a role here and I just go out there and do the best that I can.’’

Of course, the Sox offense has provided tremendous support the last eight games, a total of 63 runs.

“As always, it makes our job as starters easier,’’ Wakefield said. “We can settle in and have a little wiggle room if you make a mistake. We all try to be perfect, but it doesn’t happen.’’

Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia commented that Wakefield settled in after a somewhat shaky beginning.

“He just knows what he wants to do out there,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “Once he gets into a rhythm, he can stay in it and hitters just are so off-balance not knowing how that ball is going to move. The last two times out, he’s really had great control.’’

There are always whispers about when the end will come for Wakefield. He didn’t look very good in spring training. But Wakefield, in his 17th season with the Sox, has kept fighting. He was banished to the bullpen to start the season, but chipped in with decent outings.

The Sox have been patient with him as he’s worked through some things.

“I think you can make bad mistakes by not having patience,’’ Francona said. “Spring training, that’s a guy trying to make a club, that’s different. He’s proven himself. He deserves for us to have confidence in him. He’s been doing that for a long time. I don’t know when it’s going to stop. Maybe when he wants it to.’’

Wakefield now has 195 career wins, 181 with Boston. He’s 11 wins shy of tying Roger Clemens and Cy Young for the franchise record.

Wakefield is determined to end his career in Boston. He hopes to break the wins record, and the way he’s feeling now he expects to pitch a few more years.

“I’m not doubting that,’’ he said. “I feel great physically. See what happens.’’

We’ll all see what happens with the rotation soon, but the bullpen would get a boost with Aceves.

The team has to make room on the roster for Lackey, presumably following his rehab start in Pawtucket on Tuesday, and for Bobby Jenks, who pitched for Pawtucket last night. One obvious move is returning Scott Atchison to Pawtucket, but the second move is trickier. It would be doubtful that the Sox would send down Aceves given his success.

The team is on quite a roll, but there are too many players and not enough spots. It says here that Wakefield will be the keeper.

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

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