Daisuke Matsuzaka returned from the disabled list and pitched for the Red Sox last night, thereby rendering yet another one of my predictions null and void. Not only did he pitch, he actually pitched well in leading the surging Sox to a 4-1 victory over their familiar October foil, the Angels.
The concept of the Sox needing Matsuzaka in mid-September would have sounded impossible in June, when the Sox were trying to fit roughly 17 starters into five spots, and downright disastrous on the second Monday of August, right after the Yankees completed their demoralizing sweep of the Sox.
But Matsuzaka’s best start of the year—faint praise, yes, but the truth nonetheless, after he lasted six innings for the first time and allowed just three hits in the process—not only provides a flicker of hope the Sox can count on him as a fourth starter come October but also serves as a symbol of how far the Sox have come in the five weeks since scraping rock bottom.
While all the caveats were offered about how much baseball was still to be played, the feeling was the Sox were in a whole heap of trouble with an aging core that was being retooled on the fly. Yet guess who is tied with the Cardinals for the best record in baseball since Aug. 10? The Sox improved to 23-10 (.697) last night, percentage points better than the Yankees (24-11).
The Sox, just like they did in 2004, emerged from a brief adjustment process following Theo Epstein trades both seismic (Victor Martinez) and subtle (Alex Gonzalez) a much better team than they were in July.
The Yankees, meanwhile, have lost three of their last four games and are picking fights with the Blue Jays, who have been playing at a 100-loss pace since opening the season 27-14.
Maybe this hiccup is just an overdue regression to the mean for the Yankees, who are 42-16 since the All-Star Break but whose Pythagorean record through Monday was seven games worse than their actual record. And maybe their feistiness is typical crap from a team that leads baseball in hit batsmen (66) yet acts all wounded and offended whenever someone retaliates.
Or maybe the Yankees are stumbling in September again, just like they did in 2004, and heading for the playoffs with a largely naked rotation. CC Sabathia is infinitely better than anyone the Yankees trotted out to the mound five years ago, but with a 10.00 ERA the last two postseasons, he’s far from a sure thing to replicate his ace form in the playoffs. A.J. Burnett is doing one fine impersonation of Kevin Brown lately, which might be slightly less worrisome if Andy Pettitte—who was enjoying a resurgent second half—hadn’t been scratched from his start tonight due to “fatigued” left shoulder.
Beyond that, the Yankees don’t have anyone they can even remotely hope to rely upon in October. Fifth starter Sergio Mitre has a 7.63 ERA and sixth starter Chad Gaudin has played for four teams since the start of last season and fashioned a 5.13 ERA earlier this year for the Padres, who play their home games in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the land. The laughably undefined and flexible “Joba Rules,” meanwhile, mean nominal fourth starter Joba Chamberlain will probably be limited to one warm-up pitch every other week by the time the AL Division Series rolls around.
The Sox aren’t free of pitching concerns, not with Josh Beckett’s struggles (a 6.94 ERA in his last six starts) serving as a reminder of his atypically brutal performance last October and Tim Wakefield unlikely to be much more than a bystander in the playoffs due to a back injury that seems as if it could threaten his career. But Clay Buchholz has a 1.59 ERA in his last four starts, which allows those of us who were wondering just what the hell he was doing toiling the first half of the season at Pawtucket this season to bellow and thump our chests.
A rotation of Jon Lester-Beckett-Buchholz looks pretty good at the moment—not as imposing as the trio of Curt Schilling-Pedro Martinez-Wakefield did in 2004, but certainly better than any threesome any other AL contender can offer. And sure, even after his performance Tuesday night, the concept of Matsuzaka as reliable insurance sounds odd. But hey, back at this time five years ago, so did the idea that Derek Lowe could win all three playoff clinchers.