With 11 games to go, the magic number is six. Despite what has happened the last two nights in Kansas City, the Red Sox should soon secure another playoff berth, their sixth in seven seasons during the reign of Theo Epstein.
No matter what the Red Sox say publicly, rest assured that the wheels are in motion for Boston’s return to the postseason.
Tonight, remember, Josh Beckett will return to the mound for his team-leading 31st start of the season. Counting this outing, Beckett could have as few as two starts remaining in the regular season. At the moment, the more significant point is that Jon Lester absolutely, positively has just two starts remaining, which raises the first of today’s five questions as the Sox close in on a playoff spot:
1. Is Lester the favorite to start Game 1?
Match them up. In Lester’s last nine starts, entering Friday’s game against New York at Yankee Stadium, he is 5-0 with a 2.08 ERA. The Red Sox have won each of his last seven outings. For all of the talk about Beckett’s candidacy for the American League Cy Young Award earlier in the year, Lester now has emerged as Boston’s best candidate for the award, which will likely go to either Zack Greinke or Felix Hernandez.
Based on how the Sox have set up their pitching rotation, Lester would pitch Friday at New York and either next Wednesday or Thursday. (Expect the latter as the Sox are likely to back everyone up once they clinch.) The playoffs will open on either Wednesday, Oct. 7 or Thursday, Oct. 8, depending on which series setup the Yankees elect to play (more on that in a second). There is the very real possibility that the Sox already are lining up Lester for Game 1.
For what it’s worth, Lester in 2009 has not faced the Los Angeles Angels, who almost certainly will be the Sox’ first-round opponent. Beckett is 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA against the Angels.
2. How many starters will the Red Sox need in the first round?
The likelihood is four, though that depends on which series the Yankees select. As was the case last year, the American League team with the best record -- in this case, New York -- will have the right to choose its schedule for the first round. If the Yankees choose Series A, that series would begin Wednesday, October 7, and there would be an additional day off between Games 1 and 2. Series B begins Thursday, October 8, with no day off between Game 1 and 2.
So what’s the difference? Because of the additional off-day in Series A, the participating teams would need only three starters. In Series B, four starters are necessary unless a team opts to pitch someone on short rest. Last year, the Angels had the right to choose the series schedule and opted for Series A. Whether the Yankees would do the same remains unclear, particularly because such a decision might allow a team like the Detroit Tigers to throw ace Justin Verlander twice in the first four games.
This season, Verlander is 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA against New York. Allowing him to pitch two of the first four games of a series -- any series -- might be risky. As such, there is a chance the Sox would need only three starters in the first round, in which case Lester and Beckett would each get to pitch twice in a five-game series.
3. Assuming a matchup with the Angels, does Lester or Beckett have a decisive advantage over the other?
Overall, Beckett and Lester have had staticically similar years, though Lester’s ERA is now nearly a half-run lower. When both pitchers are at the top of their games, each can retire lefthanders and righthanders with relatively equal efficiency. Beckett has given up more home runs, especially of late, and Lester has a slightly higher walk rate.
One other thing to consider? This year, opposing basestealers have been successful in 14 of 16 with Beckett on the mound; they are 15 of 21 against Lester. As we all know, the Angels like to run. If the Red Sox continue to have difficulty scoring on the road -- this has been especially true in the second half -- controlling the opposing running game could be a critical factor in their ability to win. On paper, at least, Lester would seemingly give them a better chance to restrain an Angels team that is always aggressive on the bases.
4. How will the catching situation work in the playoffs?
Time will tell, but Red Sox manager Terry Francona typically has not strayed from the plan in the postseason. For example: When Tim Wakefield was in the Boston playoff rotation, Francona made a point of continuing to start Doug Mirabelli behind the plate. That suggests that Francona will continue to pair Jason Varitek with Beckett with Victor Martinez assigned to both Lester and Clay Buchholz. So far, Varitek has handled Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Regardless, even if Varitek does start, it became clear last postseason that the Red Sox will hit for him in the later innings when necessary, which could allow for a third catcher on the Boston roster. Even if the Sox do not carry a third catcher, the versatility of Martinez and Kevin Youkilis give Francona great flexibility to adjust his lineup, which could prove quite valuable during the inevitable shuffling that takes place during the playoffs.
5. How will the bullpen shake out?
Based on how Francona has done things in recent weeks, the plan seems clear in the event that things line up precisely how the Red Sox want them: Billy Wagner in the seventh, Daniel Bard in the eighth, Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth. Francona obviously reserves the right to flip-flop Wagner and Bard depending on the composition of the opposing lineup, but the Red Sox have indisputable firepower at the end of the game.
On those occasions when Wagner is not available -- again, an additional off-day in the schedule might benefit the Sox here -- Hideki Okajima is likely to figure into the mix, despite his recent struggles. Of the remaining relievers, Ramon Ramirez is likely to get the nod over Manny Delcarmen in any middle-inning situation of consequence given how each has performed in recent weeks.
One final note: the Sox are likely to carry one starter in the bullpen as an "anchor man" in the event they get into a long, extra-inning game that exhausts the bullpen. If the Sox need four starters in the series, the identity of that starter could be in question depending on the health of Wakefield and the performance of Paul Byrd.
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