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Sox depth will be tested starting now

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  July 7, 2011 03:48 PM

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The Red Sox have been lucky thus far. Lucky that Josh Beckett, who started the season as a fourth starter, has reverted to ace form. Lucky that Tim Wakefield is defying Father Time one knuckleball at a time. Lucky that Andrew Miller, a reclamation project of Big Dig-proportions, is panning out. Lucky that Alfredo Aceves is as flexible as a Cirque du Soleil performer in his use.

That's a lot of good fortune in the Fens so far, and you wonder how long it can last as the injuries pile up and the starting rotation, the biggest advantage the Sox were forecast to have over the Yankees, gets pulled apart at the seams. The bats get top billing, but the American League East is an arms race.

Even with the injuries and seven starts by Daisuke Matsuzaka, the rotation has given the Sox a chance to win more often than not. Red Sox starters have posted a 4.04 earned run average -- an uninspiring 18th in baseball -- but that number is Zeppelin-like inflated by John Lackey's 7.47 ERA. Take his numbers, 60 earned runs allowed in 72.1 innings, away and you have a combined starters' ERA of 3.49. The Yankees starters have a 3.63 ERA this season.

Can the Sox tread water for the next three weeks if four-fifths of their rotation is Wakefield, Miller, Lackey and Aceves/a mystery guest (Kyle Weiland or Felix Doubront)? They might not have a choice.

Maybe the Sox won't have to go that long with patchwork starting pitching, but that would be another fortuitous development on Yawkey Way. It's looking increasingly likely that Clay Buchholz, who hasn't pitched since June 16 due to a balky back, won't return until August. Even when Buchholz heals, he has missed enough time that he likely will require a rehab start or two.

Jon Lester, who was put on the disabled list yesterday with a strained left latissimus muscle, is eligible to return to action on July 22, when the Sox start a three-game set against the Mariners at Fenway. But look for the Sox to be conservative because this is the type of injury, like an oblique strain, that can linger for a pitcher if not given proper time to fully heal. Rushing Lester back to face Seattle or the Kansas City Royals simply isn't the Sox' medical style.

The milieu of maladies make tonight's start by Miller -- suddenly your No. 3 starter --against Baltimore even more intriguing. He has eased back into the big league mix at the back end of the rotation, but for the next couple of weeks the Sox need him to pitch like the front-line starter he was billed as coming out of the University of North Carolina.

The Sox have been infatuated with the 6-foot, 7-inch Miller dating back to spring training, when manager Terry Francona said: "There is some pretty special stuff coming out of that arm." The former No. 6 overall pick by the Detroit Tigers started the season in Pawtucket to try to resurrect his game and his confidence. With the PawSox, Miller found a pre-start routine that allowed the lanky lefthander to stop starting games like he was throwing darts blindfolded.

He is 2-0 with a 3.06 ERA since a promotion to the big league club. But he hasn't faced an American League lineup until tonight and pitched twice in National League ballparks, where the designated hitter wasn't used. Miller has faced the San Diego Padres, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Houston Astros, all teams that rank in the bottom half of baseball in run production.

As Lackey has learned, it's a little bit different pitching in the American League East, which is a Darwinian experiment for pitchers. Bottom-feeding Baltimore isn't exactly the 1961 Yankees. The Birds are 20th in the majors in runs scored, but they have some pop. The Orioles have hit 95 home runs this season, one fewer than the Sox.

The National League placebo phase is over for Miller. We'll learn more about him tonight than in his other three starts combined.

Then tomorrow it's Beckett, the only start-of-the-season Sox starter who has not gone on the disabled list. Who had that in the preseason pool?

Saturday it's Lackey, who if not for the rash of injuries might have already been ejected from the rotation. In a NESN interview with Peter Gammons, Sox general manager Theo Epstein made it clear that the Sox would not wait indefinitely for Lackey to turn it around.

Epstein also said that Weiland had "dynamic stuff." It wouldn't be a surprise if Weiland, who last pitched on July 4, got a major league audition on Sunday against the Orioles, taking Lester's turn, to see if he can contribute this season.

After Sunday, the Sox catch a break with the All-Star break.

The All-Star hiatus and the scheduled off-day the Sox have next Thursday that doesn't have them starting the second half until July 15 couldn't be coming at a better time because it buys some extra time for Lester, Buchholz and limping left fielder Carl Crawford, who is on track to return from his hamstring injury on July 18 in Baltimore.

The Sox have made due with the Drew Suttons, Yamaico Navarros and Josh Reddicks so far with Crawford and Jed Lowrie out and Kevin Youkilis nicked up. But replacing frontline starting pitching is an entirely different enterprise, and if last season taught us anything it's that organizational depth and mid-season Cinderellas can only mask major wounds for so long. Remember Daniel Nava?

Luckily, the Sox have not suffered anything on the scale of Dustin Pedroia's broken foot or Jacoby Ellsbury's fractured ribs or Youkilis's torn thumb muscle to a key pitcher (sorry, Daisuke) or position player -- yet.

The Sox are good. We know that. But they need to keep being lucky on the pitching front until Lester and Buchholz return.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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