As Terry Francona clearly delineated in his postgame news conference Sunday afternoon, the reason behind Clay Buchholz's start in the Red Sox' second-half opener Friday night is to even out the rest schedule for the regular starters in the big-league rotation.
Everyone gets the standard nine days off — their regular four, four for the All-Star break, and one to watch Buchholz's 2009 debut. Brad Penny, who last pitched on July 9 against Kansas City, gets the ball Saturday, July 18. Jon Lester, who pitched on the 10th, goes for the Sox on Sunday, the 19th. Nine days for everyone. Plain and simple.
For most of the Sox' staff, the time off should be a blessing — a chance to regroup, rest the arm and prepare for the second half of the season.
Perhaps not for John Smoltz.
No Sox pitcher has more momentum headed into the All-Star break than Smoltz, who finally earned his first win in a Red Sox uniform on last Saturday afternoon. The 42-year-old right-hander went five innings against the visiting Royals, allowing just one run on four hits. He struck out seven K.C. hitters and walked one.
It's a huge step forward, and the Red Sox are no doubt eager to see him follow it up with another strong start. He's certainly capable.
The peripheral numbers behind John Smoltz's first four starts in a Sox uniform — 17 strikeouts, four walks, zero home runs in 20 innings of work — have been stellar. He's just getting hit hard for singles and doubles, which may be a byproduct partly of the defense behind him and partly of bad luck. Both will even out in the long run — Smoltz is the real deal.
So what should the Sox expect from him in the second half?
If they're lucky, they can expect a playoff starter. And in the long run, that's what they really need.
If the season ended today, the Red Sox would be the top seed in the American League playoffs, setting them up for a first-round series with Detroit. The Sox would send their two aces, Josh Beckett and Lester, to the mound for the first two games; the Tigers would counter with Edwin Jackson and Justin Verlander. But then what?
What sets great teams apart in the postseason is having at least three great starting pitchers, not one or two. And while the Sox have plenty of depth in their rotation, the question is who rises to the top of that heap along with Beckett and Lester.
Penny has been good lately, but we're not sure it'll hold up. Buchholz is promising but still growing. Tim Wakefield is decent, but who really wants to start George Kottaras in a playoff series?
Smoltz, baseball's all-time leader in postseason wins with 15, is the natural choice for a No. 3 starter in the Red Sox' rotation. He has the experience, and he still has the stuff.
Don't worry about his age. Smoltz has reinvented himself such that no one needs him to throw a mid-90s fastball like a young phenom — instead, he can mix up his pitches and fool hitters. Slider, curveball, splitter, changeup, you name it.
As the second half gets underway, we can expect Smoltz to take the mound and prove that he's still got it. You can certainly tell he's feeling it now.
“I’ve checked in, you know?” Smoltz told the Boston Herald after his first win. “I feel like it’s been a long time … The first three games, I had some mechanical issues, but I made pitches. But I didn’t feel like a pitcher until today.”
He looks like a pitcher, too. He looks like a pitcher that could play a big role on a playoff baseball team. Now, he's ready to prove it.