Ace in a hole

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.

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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.