THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Fighting it, but Lackey 3d man in

John Lackey glares at Terry Francona as the manager comes to the mound to pull him with two outs in the seventh inning. John Lackey glares at Terry Francona as the manager comes to the mound to pull him with two outs in the seventh inning. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / August 2, 2011

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The deadline has come and gone. Erik Bedard is coming to Boston and Clay Buchholz is all but officially gone for the season. And we are left to wonder . . . whom do you trust to pitch the third game of the Division Series?

Such is the state of the Red Sox and their place in the American League in 2011. The Sox are a lock for the playoffs. The wild card, and the abject mediocrity of the Central and West divisions, guarantee that both Boston and New York are tournament-bound. It’s just a matter of home field, opponent, and the identity of the No. 3 starter.

Give me John Lackey. I know he’s been a piñata since coming to Boston (underperformance, poor media skills, and an $82 million contract will do that), but for some reason I have faith in the big guy. That’s even though he spit the bit last night, coughing up a 3-1 lead and surrendering a pair of homers in an ugly 9-6 loss to the Indians.

For most of this season we’ve been pretty smug about Boston’s big three of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Buchholz. With that trio, the Sox appeared to have an edge over the Yankees. They looked like a good bet to go to the World Series.

Now our world is upside down. Buchholz has a stress fracture in his lower back. (Manager Terry Francona said we’ll “have the whole thing’’ today, “a little more [information].’’) This would seem to disqualify him from playoff action in 2011, although we do wonder why - given the severity of this injury - he still was throwing off a bullpen mound last Monday. One could conclude that the Sox didn’t yet have complete information on the young starter, but their urgency to get another pitcher at the deadline demonstrates that they had a pretty good idea Buchholz was done for the season.

We are going to see the Yankees at Fenway this weekend. They did nothing at the deadline and their starters at this hour are CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, and Ivan Nova. It’s been trendy to mock the Yankees staff this season, but Sabathia is a legitimate ace, Burnett has been better than his 8-9 record (only two starts in which he allowed more than four earned runs), and the other three have been better than any New Yorker could have hoped. Entering last night’s games, the Yankees’ team ERA was 3.47, third-best in the AL and best among teams currently in playoff positions. The Sox were eighth in team ERA.

Any way you look at it, the subtraction of Buchholz seriously dents Boston’s World Series chances. With Buchholz, the Sox had a Big Three second only to Philadelphia and San Francisco. Now it’s two reliable starters and a bag of doubt. Question Mark and the Mysterians. The final two months of the season will serve as an audition for the third and fourth spots in the Sox’ playoff quest.

Andrew Miller has had some moments, but he doesn’t project as playoff timber. If Miller gets a start it would be like Gary Waslewski starting Game 6 of the 1967 World Series or Pete Schourek starting Game 4 against the Indians in 1998. Rookie Dana Kiecker started against the A’s in the 1990 ALCS.

I vote “no’’ on Tim Wakefield. We all love Wake and I hope he gets to come back next year to vault ahead of Roger Clemens and Cy Young with a 193d franchise victory, but if I’m boss of Fenway he never gets the ball at the start of another playoff game. Too many bad things have happened.

That leaves Messrs. Lackey and Bedard.

The thought of Lackey starting a playoff game scares the stuffing out of a lot of Sox fans.

Sorry, but I’m a Lackey lackey. Granted, he was downright horrible at the start of this season. He’s got a ridiculous 6.23 ERA. But have faith. Mike Scioscia did. Lackey won the seventh game of the World Series for the Angels when he was a rookie in 2002. Lackey’s ERA in seven ALDS games is 2.40. His career ERA in four ALCS games is 3.70.

Granted, he’s put way too many men on base since coming to Boston, but Lackey led the team in starts and innings last season and he’s actually on a four-game winning streak despite last night’s stinker.

“He threw the ball really well,’’ said Francona. “But he made some mistakes and he paid for ’em.’’

I asked Lackey if he was personally disappointed that he couldn’t hold the lead for his team.

“We didn’t win the game,’’ he answered. “That’s the main thing and that’s frustrating for sure.’’

OK. But I’d feel better if Lackey reared back and said, “Damn right. I’m embarrassed at this. I’m better than this.’’

Alas, that’s not Lackey’s response in his soft summer of 2011.

It’s possible to get to the World Series with only three starters, but you’re probably going to need a fourth and that brings us to Bedard, who may wind up being the No. 3 guy ahead of Lackey.

Bedard was not at Fenway last night. He’s expected to join his new team today and is scheduled to pitch Thursday night against the Tribe.

We’re all anxiously awaiting Bedard’s first words to the Boston media (kind of like Albert Haynesworth, minus the rap sheet). Without setting foot in town, Bedard has been portrayed as a guy with the big-game toughness of Matt Young and the disposition of Sean Penn. Maybe he can bring Nomar’s red “line of death’’ back to the Sox clubhouse.

It’s a bit much, actually. Bedard might be the first player run out of town before he gets to town. Even police-blotter Haynesworth didn’t get crushed like this before he joined the team.

We truly don’t care if a guy talks. Bedard’s personality matters only if it turns out that he can’t perform in a city in which baseball is religion. So let’s cut Bedard some slack - at least until Thursday, when he makes his first start.

Sorry, people. Lackey’s your No. 3 guy in the playoffs.

Gulp.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that John Lackey led the Red Sox in "wins" and innings last season. Lackey led the Sox in starts and innings.

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