The Sox set their rotation

FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox finalized two major pitching decisions (the first four starters and Justin Masterson’s role) while leaving two others (the fifth starter and Clay Buchholz’s role) open for now.

None of the developments, revealed by manager Terry Francona, are surprising. The Red Sox will open the season with a top four of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield. Masterson, who will throw two innings out of the bullpen Tuesday, will be a reliever this season.

Beckett will pitch the 2009 regular season opener versus the Rays on Monday, April 6 at Fenway Park. Lester will take the hill for the Red Sox on Wednesday, April 8 followed by Matsuzaka on April 9.

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The Red Sox are waiting on naming the fifth starter, who, because of a day off April 7, will not be needed until April 12. They need to see how Brad Penny, who is starting today against the Twins, comes through in his final two starts of the spring. Penny previously battled fatigue in his right shoulder, but he was stellar in his first start, in which he pitched three innings.

“You don’t want to rush into something because there’s an arbitrary date,” Francona said. “We need a pitcher, but we don’t want to make a mistake, either. He’s been great about buying into everything. We’ll continue to talk to him and see how he’s progressing.”

If Penny is healthy and effective, it seems, the pitcher left out of the equation would be Clay Buchholz, who, with a 0.46 ERA, has been perhaps the best Red Sox pitcher of the spring. Francona has not spoken with Buchholz about where he will begin the season, because it has not yet been finalized.

“We can’t tell guys stuff we don’t know,” Francona said. “Guys that are still in camp are still in camp. I know that the closer you get to breaking with the team, it can create some anxiety. At the same time, he’s done a terrific job, and I think he’s been really mature about the whole thing. But we can’t tell guys stuff we don’t know.

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“Whatever the decision ends up being on Clay won’t diminish how we feel about him. That’s for sure.”

A reporter suggested to Francona that, reading between the lines, it seemed like Buchholz would be the fifth starter, at least at the outset of the season, if Penny is not ready. “I don’t blame you for reading between the lines,” Francona said. “I’m probably not going to talk between the lines.”

Buchholz would be the obvious choice, in part, because Masterson is a definite reliever as of today. The Red Sox had him on a starter’s throwing schedule, so he was stretched out just in case.

“We’re going to put him in the bullpen,” Francona said. “That’s why he’s going to pitch two innings. We love the idea of what we did with him. We think it’s really good for him. I think we’ve gotten to a point in spring where we think it’s in his best interest now to go the other way, for our ball club to get set, not having him hang in the balance, not knowing what he’s going to do.”

Masterson consistently said he did not have a preference and was never overly anxious to learn his 2009 role. His maturity and relaxed demeanor made his handling this spring possible.

“If he was a kid that couldn’t handle or it caused a lot of anxiety, we would have done it differently,” Francona said. “We kept checking with him. If we ever felt like it was counterproductive, we wouldn’t have done it. He’s a solid kid, and he understands. We never want to do something that’s going to put somebody in a tough state, and he’s fine.”

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Last season, Matsuzaka pitched in front of Lester. This year, that’s switched. Francona said the reason for the move was not based on performance, but rather because of Matsuzaka’s World Baseball Classic schedule.

“I don’t think it really mattered,” Francona said. “We just got our hands on Daisuke. Rather than flip-flop everybody’s order, we have it settled in.”

To prepare for their starts, Lester and Matsuzaka will pitch Friday and Saturday against the New York Mets in New York in the final exhibition games of the spring. Wakefield will pitch a minor league game here on Saturday.

(This post will be filled out with more quotes and more details as time allows.)