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Red Sox suddenly dangling by an ankle

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 6, 2011 07:33 AM

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The playoffs are slightly more than three weeks away, and suddenly a Red Sox season marked by a calamitous beginning seems positioned for such an end. The defeats are one thing. The potential loss of Josh Beckett is something altogether different.

Admit it: when Beckett started hobbling around on his right ankle yesterday following an entirely ordinary delivery to home plate, you immediately thought of Curt Schilling and October 2004.

That was the year, of course, that Schilling suffered a torn tendon sheath in his right ankle, an injury that nearly undermined the Red Sox’ run to the World Series title and ultimately required Schilling’s ankle to all but be buttoned into place.

“It’s something in my ankle, I’m not sure what,’’ Beckett told reporters yesterday in Toronto. “It’s always concerning. That’s my power leg. With the way I pitch, I don’t think I can cut my leg off. It’s definitely stiff.’’

Gulp.

Let us pray.

An overreaction? Perhaps, though it would be one thing if Beckett rolled his ankle yesterday while, say, covering first base on a ground ball to the right side. Then we would know what the issue is. But the fact this happened on a simple delivery to home plate suggests something far more worrisome, particularly when Beckett said his ankle felt like it was “locked up” and then “popped in and out of the socket or something.”

Paranoia? Hypochondria? Maybe so. But Schilling described a similar sensation years ago, stressing that he felt instability and weakness in his ankle more than he felt pain.

Regardless, we all know what is at stake here. As good as the Red Sox lineup has been this season, Boston’s chances at a third world title in an eight-year span were built just as much on the team’s starting rotation. Coming into the year, the Sox had nearly one-third of their record payroll (or about $57 million in luxury tax and posting fee dollars) committed to Beckett, John Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Matsuzaka bit the dust months ago and Buchholz has since tumbled with him, realities that promoted the Sox to pull the trigger on a deadline deal for Erik Bedard.

Oh, right. Did we mention that Bedard will be skipping a start to rest a balky knee? And remember that the Red Sox secured him only after pulling out of a deal for Rich Harden because of concern over the chronically ailing Harden’s health.

Yeesh.

Minus Beckett, the impact on the Boston rotation is obvious. Instead of throwing Lester and Beckett (not necessarily in that order) in Games 1 and 2 of any series, the Red Sox would now be compelled to throw Lester and … who? Bedard? Lackey? And with both of those men thrust into the heart of the postseason rotation – the era of good feeling on Lackey, too, expired over the weekend – the Sox would be forced to choose a Game 4 starter from a group that might include Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield, and Alfredo Aceves, among others.

Certainly, the Sox could defeat the Detroit Tigers with such a group. They might even be able to defeat the New York Yankees (who now lead the division b y three games in the loss column) or Texas Rangers, though that obvious has become less likely. But the odds of beating someone like the Philadelphia Phillies drop to near zero minus Beckett, who has precisely the same ERA this season as Phillies ace Roy Halladay, albeit in the American League East.

But as we often do in this business – and in this city – we are getting ahead of ourselves.

As for the Red Sox’ shoddy play of late, it is of relatively minimal concern. So the team has lost four of six. So what? In and of itself, the division means nothing, history in the wildcard era having proven that the odds of winning a championship as wildcard team are every bit as good as those of winning a title as a division winner. That will change if and when another round of postseason play is added, but it remains a mathematical fact now.

After suffering his ankle injury in the first round of the 2004 playoffs, for what it’s worth, Schilling started Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees and was shelled. At that point, the Red Sox took the radical step of placing a suture in his ankle so that Schilling’s tendon would cease slipping in and out of place, a process that paid enormous dividends in Game 6 of the ALCS. The Sox repeated the procedure before Game 2 of the World Series, then admitted that another such procedure might not have been possible had the World Series gone beyond four games.

Whether Beckett’s problem is remotely similar is entirely speculation at this point, so keep your fingers crossed.

In the meantime, as always, it is best to plan for the worst while hoping for the best.

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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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