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Starting to look ugly

With Lester the latest, rotation taking its lumps

Tim Wakefield, whose spot in the rotation has solidified with recent Sox injuries, delivers in the first inning. Tim Wakefield, whose spot in the rotation has solidified with recent Sox injuries, delivers in the first inning. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 7, 2011

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“Maybe it’s time to make that call to Pedro,’’ joked one Red Sox official. We think.

If Pedro Martinez were in shape, it’s not a bad thought, but it seems the next time we will see him will be making his induction speech in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The real issues are, how serious are the injuries to Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, and how badly off-kilter is John Lackey?

With Daisuke Matsuzaka also out, there are only so many hits your starting rotation can take before it doesn’t resemble your rotation anymore. The Sox now have lost four-fifths of their starting rotation, if you consider Lackey a loss, which you almost have to given his 7.47 ERA.

And if you had insisted that Josh Beckett would be the healthiest pitcher, you probably wouldn’t have believed it.

The only positive news is that the injuries have come right before the All-Star break. That should help Lester, who is on the disabled list with a strained lat muscle and could be ready to go by July 22. Buchholz, meanwhile, has a lower-back strain that acts up when he’s driving toward the plate. He doesn’t feel any pain just walking around, only when he’s pitching. Terrific.

Lackey’s maladies are probably the most frustrating, and if they aren’t related to anything physical - such as the strained elbow that sent him to the DL - then what?

General manager Theo Epstein has said it’s up to the team to turn Lackey around. Curt Young is a good pitching coach, but he’s not a miracle worker. At some point, a 10-year veteran has to reverse his own curse, and pronto. Lackey is a guy you should be able to lean on.

But like many teams with a lot of money, the Sox have suitable replacements. It’s hard to lean on a 44-year-old pitcher, knuckleball or no knuckleball, but last night’s starter, Tim Wakefield, has wanted this opportunity to stick in the rotation. He has his wish.

Alfredo Aceves also would rather start full time, but as he says, “I’m a pitcher. I will pitch when they ask me to pitch.’’ For the most part, Aceves has been a good jack-of-all-trades, though prone to wildness.

Andrew Miller has made three good starts, but now it’s time to see him go deeper into games, and turn up that heater late, when it’s needed to dominate hitters. The Red Sox feel they’ve found something, but Miller needs to show consistency, and even step it up a notch. While he said after his last start that he’s not concerned with his velocity, which was 91-92 against the Astros, he’s capable of throwing 96-97. OK, velocity isn’t the be-all and end-all, and if he uses his curveball and changeup to keep hitters off balance, great. But he has a power component to his game that we haven’t seen yet.

This obviously isn’t one of those seasons when the Sox will have minimal injuries to their starting rotation. The team’s much-ballyhooed shoulder program hasn’t prevented arm issues. Matsuzaka and reliever Rich Hill are out for a year after Tommy John surgery.

Medical director Thomas Gill was so concerned about Lackey’s elbow that he asked Epstein to include a clause in Lackey’s contract that would give the Sox a sixth season for the major league minimum if Lackey had to miss time because of Tommy John surgery.

When NESN’s Peter Gammons suggested that Lackey might need surgery by August, it was dismissed by the team and Lackey, but how far-fetched was it? He’d already needed a cortisone shot to relieve symptoms and there’s existing damage. The Red Sox have taken the approach that every pitcher has some sort of damage. True, but they knew Lackey had elbow issues and still gave him the money - almost $17 million a year.

At some point, the Sox will get something out of lefthander Felix Doubront, and Kyle Weiland, a former closer at Notre Dame who has made great strides as a starter at Pawtucket (8-6, 3.00 ERA). The scouting reports on Kevin Millwood (5-1, 4.88) aren’t good, even though he’s retiring Triple A hitters with an array of offspeed pitches. There’s always the possibility the Sox would seek to bring a veteran starter into the fold if they feel Buchholz, especially, will take a while to return.

The Sox’ salvation is their bullpen. You wouldn’t find too many who would have said Matt Albers would be a key reliever, but he has been. Because of Albers’s success in middle relief, the Sox have been able to utilize their entire bullpen, from Albers to Franklin Morales to Daniel Bard to Jonathan Papelbon. There’s also the hope that Bobby Jenks becomes a factor in the second half and bolsters the bullpen even more.

The best-case scenario is that by Aug. 1, the Sox have five solid starters they can depend on to finish the season strong. Their depth is constantly being challenged and the key is to find a way, whether with an enhanced offense, or just having depth guys step in and do their jobs better than expected. Last night was a good example: explosive two-out offense in the fourth inning, and Wakefield keeping them close.

Everyone knew this would not be a race in which one team runs away and never looks back. The Yankees have survived their injuries and now can look forward to Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon.

They excelled with Derek Jeter on the DL, and now he’s back and can be expected to hit his stride some point.

The Red Sox should get Carl Crawford (hamstring) back by the Baltimore series, which begins July 18. He should bolster the offense while the Sox try to compensate for their pitching injuries.

So Pedro, pick up the phone. It would be nice to have you back.

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

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