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Ace in a hole

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff September 29, 2008 09:34 AM

Replace “Josh Beckett” with “Pedro Martinez” and “2008” with “1999” and I’d be a bit more concerned.

Granted, if one man can carry a team come playoff time, it’s Beckett. But unlike the lean staff years of the late 90’s, when Martinez was followed by the likes of Bret Saberhagen and Pat Rapp, the Sox of ’08 have a 16-game and an 18-game winner ready to move up a notch.

Can they survive the ALDS without their staff ace? Sure. Well, maybe.

Can they go beyond that without the contributions of a man who gave them four wins last October? Doubtful.

The news that Beckett will be pushed back until Game 3 of this week’s time-zone-challenged (10 p.m. Wednesday start on the Left Coast) opening round against the Angels is indeed precarious, but it’s hardly the end of the line, not for a team that can counter Beckett’s oblique injury with Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is 9-0 on the road.

So, that’s the good news. The bad? Here’s what those two have done vs. the Angels this season: Matsuzaka, 0-1, 10.80 ERA, Lester, 0-0, 7.20 ERA. Those are each pitcher’s highest ERAs this season against any AL opponent.

Of course, it’s only fair to remember just how bad everyone has been against the Angels, against whom Boston was just 1-8 during the regular season. Beckett was 0-2, with a 7.43 ERA. But the Sox haven’t seen the Angels since the end of July, back when they were a different team in search of identity, one with Manny Ramirez gumming up the works.

So, really . . . well, heck if I know what to expect in a series where Beckett, Mike Lowell, and J.D. Drew are all injury concerns. That’s your 2007 ALCS MVP, your World Series MVP, and your ALCS Game 6 hero all heading into October banged up and bruised.

But what have these Sox done lately that suggests they’re about to get steamrolled by the Angels? They were 16-10 in the last month of the season and won 95 games overall, one fewer than in 2007, when they were AL East champs. Of course, four of those six losses came head-to-head against the Rays, which effectively ended any chance of another division crown.

They are at a serious disadvantage without their ace, but the job isn’t insurmountable. Still, you think the Angels don’t remember what Beckett did to them in Game 1 last year and aren’t breathing a somewhat concealed sigh of relief? Perhaps the biggest development of all, is that if Beckett can indeed pitch Game 3, that’s it for the series, as opposed to the possibility of returning to start a deciding Game 5.

That job now goes to Lester, should it go that long.

Between his postseason run of a year ago (World Series Game 4 winner, remember) and his stellar breakout season of ’08 (which included his first career no-hitter), the Red Sox to a man have to feel confident about heading in to the playoffs with Lester as their ace. Matsuzaka in Game 2? For all the maddening aspects of watching him pitch, the man was 18-3, with a 2.90 ERA. And he’ll be going in a 9:30 start Friday night, which means you’ll get to bed sometime after 2 in the morning.

Then there’s Sunday, which is now the most important date on the Red Sox' 2008 calendar. If Beckett goes, it will be with his team up 2-0, down 2-0, or tied 1-1. If he can’t go, the Sox will be forced to trot out Tim Wakefield or Paul Byrd, possibly in the final game of their postseason. With our glass half full, Beckett could launch the Sox into the ALCS Sunday. Half empty, he’s going to have to save them from elimination. No water in the glass at all, he’s scratched from his start.

If that’s the case, well, the Pats are on at 4.

Until then though, what, me worry? Until we know if the oblique has gotten any worse, and especially until we know what Lester and Matsuzaka can bring to the table, versus John Lackey and Ervin Santana, respectively, the Beckett injury remains a hurdle, not a road block.

Not yet, anyway.

11 comments so far...
  1. JD Drew won Game 6 of the ALCS with that grand slam, not game 7. Otherwise, I couldn't agree with our article more. One question, not really worth debating until we know what happens in the first two games, but whatever. IF the Sox are up 2-0, should Beckett be used in game 3? I say no.

    Posted by Ben September 29, 08 09:54 AM
  1. So if Lester would go in Game 5 if necessary as you wrote, who would start Game 4? I thought we were only going with 3 starters.

    Posted by Gracie September 29, 08 10:45 AM
  1. Ben,

    If the Sox are up 2-0 and go with Wakefield or Byrd in game 3 instead of Beckett, you risk letting the Angels back into the series. Wake pitched well Sunday, but I wouldn't be real confident in either of them being able to shut down the Angels and close out the series. If the Angels win game 3 in your scenario, you would have to go to Beckett in game 4 anyway. It would be better for the Sox to take their best shot up 2-0. If Beckett does not pitch game 3, it will be because he can't pitch, not because the Sox are saving him for later.

    Posted by MarshallDog September 29, 08 10:47 AM
  1. Without Beckett 100%, it doesn't look too good. However, don't put much stock in the season series with the Angels. In 1988, I believe it was, the Mets had beaten the Dodgers like a rented mule during the regular season. I don't know what the actual record was, but, it was something like 137-1, or seemed like it was, anyway.

    Any baseball historian (or if you're as old as I am, you saw it) knows what happened when the Dodgers met the Mets in that NL Championship Series.

    So, the loss of Beckett, or a less effective Beckett, looms larger than the season series.

    Posted by Matt Talvi September 29, 08 12:27 PM
  1. Even without Beckett's injury, Lester, Dice-K, Beckett would have been my rotation anyway. Jon has been our ace all year and Dice-K piches well away from Fenway... The key injury is Mike Lowell...

    Posted by SteveP September 29, 08 12:45 PM
  1. The whole thing is really a crapshoot. We played the Angels when we were playing bad and had Ramirez around our necks, and they were playing at their peak, so I don't look at our 1-8 record against them as a realiable barometer for our series.
    Intangibles always gum up the joint when predicting winners in the playoffs (hello St Louis). If we get the Jon Lester who blanked the Yanks 7-0 in the stadium, and a Dice-K who is on Friday night, we could win.
    Everybody will pick the Angels to roll by the Sox, but then nearly everyone chose the Lakers over the Celtics in June. The Halos are the better team on paper, but that's why you roll the ball out and play.
    The Angels are very tough, but they were tough in 2004 and were also tough in 2007.
    If we get hot, watch out. There's no team more dangerous in these playoffs than the Sox if they get on a roll.

    Posted by Rene Pastor September 29, 08 01:46 PM
  1. The concern for me is the bullpen that has been good lately against subpar teams.Also, Papelbon ain't the same. Angels in 5 over Rays in ALCS.

    Posted by SEAN September 29, 08 02:02 PM
  1. The Red Sox have been so inconsistent this season that playing L.A. is frightening. I've got my fingers crossed, but - this prediction is sure to make everyone sick - Dodgers over Rays in Series.

    Posted by Bob Fredette September 29, 08 03:05 PM
  1. The injury to Beckett certainly doesn't help matters but anything can happen in a 5 game series. Even if Beckett's injury is more serious than they are letting on, a rotation of Lester, Dice K, Wake, and Byrd could win 3 out of 5 against the Angels. They would certainly be underdogs but they could win with good performances and timely hitting. Besides, if the Sox go down 2-0 against the Halos, John Henry and Co. have decided to retire Jody Reed's #3 before the first home game as a way to drum up some enthusiasm and excitement.

    Posted by internet_king September 29, 08 03:41 PM
  1. Just go back to last year when Cleveland was 0-6 against the Yankees in the regular season.

    . . .

    Can we import some bugs to the park?

    Posted by amy September 29, 08 03:45 PM
  1. Pat Crapp in the starting rotation? Yes, those were lean years!

    Posted by KF September 29, 08 08:21 PM
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