As surely as Daisuke Matsuzaka shaved off between 10 and 15 pounds, the Red Sox' pitching staff once again looks thick. As a result, your beloved baseball team is closer to the New York Yankees than the Texas Rangers this morning, offering probable cause that there will be fall baseball in New England this year.
In their grandest of grand plans, this is how Theo Epstein, Terry Francona and John Farrell drew it up last winter: the Red Sox would come at you in waves. Since dropping 3 of 4 to the Chicago White Sox in a disappointing stretch that ended with Josh Beckett’s loss to Mark Buehrle on Labor Day, the Red Sox have returned to their Camelot, posting a perfect 6-0 record at Fenway Park. With 19 games left in the regular season, their advantage in the wild card race is now a whopping six games. During that span, the Red Sox pitching staff -- starters and relievers -- is 6-0 with a 1.26 ERA. In 50 innings, the Sox have held opponents to a .204 average while failing to allow even a single home run, collecting 43 strikeouts against just 16 walks.
"Regardless of who it is [pitching] right now, it doesn’t matter,’’ Red Sox left field Jason Bay said following night’s 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels. "You show up at the ballpark and you feel like you have a legitimate chance to win.’’
Said Farrell: "We feel like every night we take the field the pitcher’s got a chance to keep the game in check and get to the final third of the game, and then turn it over to a group of guys [in the bullpen] that are throwing their tails off."
So Tim Wakefield is out. So tonight’s starter is Paul Byrd. So what? Minus those two men, assuming Matsuzaka remains healthy, the Red Sox pitching staff is currently comprised of what baseball people like to call "stuff guys." At the moment, the soft-tossing but savvy Byrd is the ultimate square peg. From Beckett and Jon Lester to Clay Buchholz and now a recharged Matsuzaka, the Red Sox have the kind of stuff in their rotation that can break bats and produce weak outs. Then, as Farrell noted, the Sox can entrust games to the stormtroopers in their bullpen, an increasingly rare group in which everyone suddenly seems to be throwing in the mid-90s or faster.
Given all that has happened with Matsuzaka this year, last night’s performance was downright eye-popping. Physically, Matsuzaka looked like the man who arrived in Boston in 2007. Tactically, he looked like someone we have never before seen. Matsuzaka attacked the strike zone with a fastball that exploded through the strike zone, making it even more effective than the 92-93 mph he routinely registered on the radar gun. If this is what Matsuzaka can be for the balance of this year -- and, admittedly, that is still a very big if -- the Red Sox just found a fourth starter to join their front three of Beckett, Lester and Buchholz, which could prove invaluable in October.
"It’s not very common,’’ Farrell said when asked of the likelihood that Matsuzaka could make such a contribution after having his season effectively derailed. "We were talking the other night -- 'What’s the blueprint for getting a guy back like this?’ -- and I don’t know that there really is one.’’
Appropriate, don’t you think?
At this stage, Matsuzaka is truly a wild card.
In retrospect, maybe we all underestimated the significance of Matsuzaka’s absence this season. For all of the criticisms over the last years -- too many pitches, too much nibbling, not enough innings -- the Red Sox went 23-6 in his 29 outings last year. Because the Red Sox have so much pitching, Matsuzaka doesn’t need to be a horse. What he needs to do is give them a reasonable chance to win every five days, something the club desperately needed from the middle of July through the middle of August. Back then, the Red Sox were mired in what Farrell called "a little bit of flux."
But now? Suddenly the Sox pitching staff seems to be firing strikes like a finely tuned pitching machine: just reload, turn on the power, let it go. As if the addition of Billy Wagner hasn’t given the Sox additional dynamite in the late innings, Ramon Ramirez now seems to be reclaiming the form he demonstrated early in the season, when his first 22 appearances produced a 0.74 ERA and an opposing batting average of .139. Last night, after Matsuzaka walked Kendry Morales to start the seventh, Ramirez retired Juan Rivera, Erick Aybar and Gary Matthews, the last of whom struck out on a changeup that disappeared as if it were a hologram.
"He wants to be the guy and he wants to be thought of when matchups or game planning is taking place,’’ Farrell said of Ramirez. "He’s a fierce competitor.’’
Will all of this carry over to October, where the Red Sox currently seem headed for the sixth time in seven years? That is impossible to say. If the last two months have taught us anything, they have reminded us that no team is ever as bad as it looks during a losing streak, or as good as it looks during a winning streak. The real Red Sox are probably somewhere in between. But as we all know, the air becomes drier and the temperatures cool at this time of year, and almost always, the game goes back to the pitchers.
And at the moment, the Red Sox sure do seem to have a lot of 'em.
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