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Vulnerability apparent

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 13, 2008 10:53 PM

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These are the not the same Red Sox anymore, and they have not been the same for quite some time. So if you are expecting them to overcome five-run deficits at the most challenging time of the year, you are overlooking how this team arrived here in the first place.

Two days after Josh Beckett made like a piñata, Jon Lester went out for Game 3 of the American League Championship Series and dug the Red Sox a 5-0 hole before the game was three innings old. Subsequent events at Fenway Park were almost entirely irrelevant because the Red Sox do not have the firepower to overcome such deficits anymore, and they shouldn't have to win by scores of 9-8 and 10-9 when they send their Nos. 1 and 2 starters to the mound.

End of story.

"I think anytime you're going up against a quality opponent, the concern is for your club to execute pitches," Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said in the wake of the Sox' 9-1 pasting at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays yesterday. "I wouldn't say it's about any one of our pitchers specifically. At this time of year, there are no flukes and it's our job to remain committed to the pitches thrown. I'm not saying that we're not doing that right now, but you have to be consistent with your approach on the mound."

The offense, or lack thereof? Now there's a real news flash: the Red Sox have trouble scoring against good pitching. Excluding Game 2 at Tropicana Field over the weekend -- when Scott Kazmir played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and Rays pitchers walked 10 -- the Red Sox are batting .194 in the postseason. They have scored 21 runs in six games, an average of 3.5 per game. Manny Ramírez and Mike Lowell are not walking through that door, and David Ortiz really has not been himself for the better part of the last two seasons.

Under those circumstances, we ask you what the more realistic scenario is:

That the Red Sox start winning low-scoring games?

Or that they try to outslug a team that currently appears younger, hungrier, faster, stronger, and, most important of all, more confident?

In the first round of this postseason, against a Los Angeles Angels team that won 100 games, the Red Sox batted a mere .250 and hit just three home runs. They won the series in four games. Part of the reason for that was the complete ineptitude of the Angels, who ran into outs, gave away runs, and made stupid decisions; part was that Red Sox pitchers (specifically Lester) completely shut down a reinforced lineup that was supposed to be baseball's answer to the Chunky.

Thickerer.

Now here we are, one week after the Sox clinched their fourth trip to the ALCS in six years, and three things are happening: the Sox really aren't hitting, the Rays really aren't making mistakes, and Boston's most recent starters have spit up on themselves. Whether Sox followers want to admit it or not, the first thing is entirely consistent with what happened against the Angels; the last two are deviant behavior, particularly as it pertains to a Sox rotation that burdened much of the team's fate during the regular season.

From the start of this season, the starting pitching was the only area of Boston's play that was consistent.

And now it is abandoning them.

Isn't pitching the real key to all success?

Isn't it?

"I believe so," said catcher and captain Jason Varitek.

If this all sounds like some sort of indictment of Lester and Beckett, in particular, it isn't. Rather, it's merely an attempt to explain how a team that won 95 games during the regular season could suddenly look so vulnerable. The eventual conclusion is that Red Sox starters seem to have covered up an inordinate number of deficiencies this season -- sounds a little like that Patriots offense last year, eh? -- and that those weaknesses are now being exposed.

Varitek hasn't hit for much of the season. Over the final month, Jed Lowrie struck out a lot. When Lowell was out of the lineup, forcing Kevin Youkilis to third, the Sox got astonishingly little run production from first base, regardless of whether Sean Casey batted .322 or .222.

Always, Lester, Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield were there to provide stability, in victory or defeat.

What happens now is anybody's guess, if only because Wakefield is fully capable of going out tonight in Game 4 and pitching as if his knuckler repels wood. The obvious problem is that Beckett looks out of whack and Lester revealed that he is, in fact, mortal. Now the Sox are at the middle and back end of their rotation for the most important games of their season. The lineup isn't likely to start producing runs in bulk and the Rays aren't likely to give this series away, which means the Red Sox are going to win this series one way and one way only.

With pitching.

Is that possible? Of course, though the Sox' approach on the mound, too, has left them open for questions. In Game 1 of this series, the Sox succeeded against the key hitters in the Tampa lineup generally by pitching away from B.J. Upton and pounding fastballs in against Evan Longoria; in the last two games, they have done the opposite and paid the price. Last night, the result was that Matt Garza had to throw relatively few pitches under duress to a Red Sox lineup that isn't nearly as deep or threatening as it used to be.

The good news from this game? Lester nearly made it through the sixth, preserving the key pitchers in the bullpen for tonight. But if Wakefield does not at least give the Sox a chance in the first five or six innings, none of that is going to matter, either.

"It's a talented team," Farrell said of the Rays. "We all heard so much about, 'Just wait, just wait, just wait [for the Rays to stumble],' and we've never thought like that. They've got great bat speed through the middle of that lineup and they can catch up to mistakes."

Meanwhile, the mistakes are catching up to a Red Sox team that cannot expect its hitters to make up for its pitchers' mistakes.

This team simply is not built that way anymore.

This story also appeared in Tuesday's Boston Globe.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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