The Rays are in town for a four-game set that will go a long way to determining whether the Sox miss the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time during the Theo Epstein administration.
The juxtaposition of play yesterday for the two presumptive spring training World Series favorites couldn't have been more jarring. On the same day the Philadelphia Phillies clinched a playoff spot with a complete-game, 1-0 win by Roy Halladay, the Red Sox' postseason dance card fell further into doubt, undone by yet another Daniel Bard blow-up in a 5-4 loss to Toronto.
Philadelphia is on cruise control after riding its stellar starters to a playoff berth, while the Red Sox are scrambling to protect their spot and scrounging around for pitching like someone looking for a missing mitten in the back of a musty coat closet.
That's why when the teetering Sox, losers of six out of seven, take the field tonight against the Rays with a four-game advantage over the Maddon Men in the American League wild card, they're sending rookie Kyle Weiland to the mound.
You can blame Bard and the back end all you want for the Red Sox September dip, but this swoon starts with the starters. Due to injuries, underperformance, ineffectiveness, inconsistency and whatever you call John Lackey forays to the mound, the rotation that looked formidable in February has left the Red Sox vulnerable in September. Since Sept. 1, the Red Sox have the worst starters' earned run average in all of baseball -- 6.56. The Boston bullpen ranks 27th (6.14).
The search for a No. 3 playoff starter has been like the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, fruitless and frustrating. The outside chance that Clay Buchholz could return from the stress fracture in his back and tag-team a playoff game with Alfredo Aceves looks better every day. If the balky ankle of Josh Beckett, who returns to the hill tomorrow, isn't healed then the Sox are the Celtics without Shaquille O'Neal.
Trade deadline acquisition Erik Bedard, who came to town with an achy left knee, is now sidelined by a strained lat muscle, his return TBA. The next time he makes it into the seventh inning as a Red Sox will be the first. Lackey offered a respectable outing yesterday. But he is the only starter in baseball who qualifies for the ERA crown with an ERA over six (6.19), and the team is 12-14 when he pitches. The only other starters with losing team records are Weiland (1-2) and Aceves (1-3). Tim Wakefield finally got his 200th win, but he's 45, and even 45 year-old knuckleballers show their age.
Bard has picked a most inopportune time to falter, especially after Matt Albers turned back into a pumpkin. Despite all the offseason additions in the 'pen, the Sox remain essentially a two-man operation in winning time with Bard and Papelbon. Aceves is valuable, but his best work has come in long relief, not as a seventh-inning set-up guy.
Bard was outstanding for most of the year. He had a streak of 25 scoreless appearances and 26 1/3 scoreless innings earlier this season. He didn't suddenly become Calvin Schiraldi, although there remain long-term concerns about whether the cerebral Bard, who has blown 15 of 20 career save opportunities, has the personality or mentality to close.
What is happening with Bard may have started out as mechanical, but it appears mental now.
However, for all the panic about the suddenly skittish pen, the Sox still have a lower bullpen ERA (3.78) than the Rays (3.83) and both their potential first-round playoff opponents -- Detroit (4.00) and Texas (4.24). Their bullpen OPS of .670 is lower than the Yankees' (.671) and they have one fewer blown save than the Bronx Bombers.
Perhaps, the bullpen has pulled into the breakdown lane late in the season because it was taxed by a rotation that bows out earlier than a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Call it trickle-down ergonomics.
Boston has two complete games all year. Philadelphia has 18. Tampa Bay has 15. Texas has 10. The Yankees have five, and Detroit has four.
From July 15th, when the Sox opened the second half in Tampa Bay, until today, their starters have thrown 332.2 innings in 58 games. Only two teams have had their starters stay on the mound for fewer innings, the Cleveland Indians and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Indians have played two fewer games than the Sox. Chicago Cubs starters have also tossed 332.2 innings, but in 56 games.
The leaders are the Rays (398.2) and the Phillies (368.2). The Yankees and their patchwork pitching rotation rank fourth (359).
The Red Sox have gotten 68 quality starts this year -- a starter going six or more innings and allowing three runs or fewer. Only Kansas City, the Cubs, Colorado and Baltimore have fewer. Outside of Colorado (70-78) those teams would need the Hubble telescope to see what .500 looks like, never mind competing for a playoff spot.
This paucity of pitching is both a short-term and long-term concern.
While the Yankees have gotten a big boost from starter Ivan Nova, the Sox have gotten no bump on the bump from their internal arms. Felix Doubront has been sidetracked by injuries. Weiland has not been effective. Boston's marquee pitching prospect, Anthony Ranaudo, is only at Single A. The Yankees have top starting pitching prospects Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos at Triple A.
The Sox are simply holding on for playoff life. Forget 100 wins, that is a preseason notion that now seems as presumptuous as the idea that the Red Sox rotation was a match for Philadelphia's.
...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.