Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The 1-2 punch cannot be cut in half

An injury to Jon Lester or Josh Beckett could put the Red Sox down for the count in the playoffs. Photo from this site.

The Red Sox will enter the playoffs (and yes, with the magic number down to one, we’re well within reason in assuming the Sox will win once or the Rangers will lose once in the next six days) with one obvious edge over the rest of the American League playoff field. But the Sox were reminded of the precariousness of their starting pitching advantage twice in the last four days.

Jon Lester’s availability for the playoffs appeared to be in serious doubt when he could barely walk off the Yankee Stadium field after taking a line drive off his right leg in a 9-5 loss Friday. There still seemed to be plenty of reason for concern when the Sox announced shortly thereafter he had suffered a “quad contusion,” which seemed to be the fun-with-semantics strategy they used in describing Josh Beckett’s finger injury as an “avulsion”—and not a recurrence of his familiar blister issues—in 2007 as well as Jonathan Papelbon’s “shoulder subluxation”—and not a dislocated shoulder—in 2006.

But Terry Francona said Monday Lester is expected to make his next start as scheduled against the Indians Thursday, which qualifies as off-the-charts good news considering Lester appears likely to start Game One of the AL Division Series.

Alas, any relief the Sox felt over that was tempered by, if not outright negated by, the decision earlier Monday to scratch Josh Beckett from his start against the Blue Jays due to back spasms. It’s probably just a matter of the Sox playing it safe with their co-ace, especially given Beckett’s stated desire last week to get some rest before the playoffs, and Francona hinted after the game Monday Beckett will likely make a tune-up start against the Indians Saturday.

But still, it was another reminder that for all of Beckett’s excellence, this is the first season in which he has exceeded 205 innings—a mark previously reached by every other member of the Sox’ Opening Day rotation except Daisuke Matsuzaka, who threw 204 2/3 innings as a rookie in 2007—as well as of the oblique injury that wrecked his postseason a year ago.

And it’s another reminder of how brittle the Sox are beyond their top two, particularly if Lester or Beckett is compromised. The Sox should feel pretty confident putting the baseball in the hands of Clay Buchholz—untested in October but brilliant lately—for Game Three of the ALDS, but the Game Four starter, if necessary, will be Daisuke Matsuzaka, as much by necessity as merit despite his recent effectiveness.

That the Sox would have to start in a potential elimination game a pitcher who missed more than half the season and produced an ERA well north of 6 would have been inconceivable way back when we were all gushing about the impressive pitching depth the club had compiled. But John Smoltz and Brad Penny didn’t have AL-worthy stuff and Tim Wakefield has missed most of the second half, which has left the Sox in the same position as a year ago: Scrambling to find live bodies—one named Paul Byrd—to take the hill in September.

As I noted in this post about Smoltz and Penny in May, the Sox received a season’s worth of starts last year out of the sextet of Byrd, Bartolo Colon, Justin Masterson, David Pauley, Charlie Zink and Michael Bowden. Those hurlers pitched to a 5.00 ERA in 163 2/3 innings over 28 starts. Only five AL pitchers who pitched at least 162 innings last season fashioned an ERA of higher than 5.00.

The filling-in-the-gaps pitchers performed even worse this season. Masterson, Byrd, Smoltz, Bowden and Junichi Tazawa have combined to post a 6.68 ERA in 129 1/3 innings over 25 starts. Add Matsuzaka’s 11 starts into the equation and the six pitchers have compiled a 6.50 ERA in 182 2/3 innings. The highest ERA among big league qualifiers belongs to Livan Hernandez, who has a 5.48 ERA between the Mets and the Nationals. The Blue Jays’ Brian Tallet has the highest ERA among AL qualifiers (5.32).

All of which is to say we’ve learned our lesson when it comes to extolling the depth of a team’s starting pitching—and that the advantage the Sox enjoy atop their rotation with Lester and Beckett is a tenuous one, one that feels ever more precarious with every ache and pain experienced by the duo.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jerrybeach.

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