It wasn't too long ago that the Red Sox appeared on the verge of
trading Brad Penny due to a surplus of arms. With Penny, Josh Beckett,
Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield in the rotation, there
wasn't enough room for John Smoltz to work his way in or for Clay
Buchholz to work his way up. But those days are long gone with only
Beckett and Lester meeting expectations this season.
Matsuzaka hasn't pitched since June 19 due to a weak right arm that has
recently caused controversy. Wakefield is on the DL as well with a bad
back and now a bad calf. Penny has won just twice since May 25. Smoltz
has a 7.12 ERA and no quality starts through seven starts. And Buchholz
has allowed 39 base runners in 19 1/3 innings.
After enjoying a three-game sweep of the lowly Orioles over the weekend to creep closer to the Yankees at the top of the AL East, the Red Sox finished off the last of their cupcake games for a long, long time. And with the postseason picture wide open, starting pitching will either make or break the Red Sox over the next month.
Starting Tuesday in Tampa Bay, the Red Sox begin a 32-game stretch over 34 days that will take them to Sept. 8 either in position to head to the postseason or needing a strong finish to the year to get in.
Rays, Yankees, Tigers, Rangers, Blue Jays, Yankees, White Sox, Blue Jays, Rays, White Sox. That's how the Red Sox will spend the dog days of August and the first week of September this season. And the biggest part of the gauntlet comes in the first six games against the Rays and Yankees, given the state of the division and wild-card races, with all six games on the road.
In those six games, the Red Sox send Beckett (13-4, 3.27) to the mound just once — Friday against A.J. Burnett and the Yankees. In the Red Sox' last seven games, Beckett has started twice and the Red Sox allowed just three runs combined in those two games. In the other five games, the pitching staff could not hold opposing teams to fewer than five runs.
Lester (9-7, 3.90), who has looked like his old self recently, will get two starts over the next six games with a start on Tuesday against the Rays and Sunday against the Yankees. Since May 31, Lester has pitched to a 6-2 record and 2.17 ERA in 11 starts to get his season back on track.
But after Beckett and Lester? Well things get just a little shaky.
In games that Beckett and Lester have started, the Red Sox are 30-12. In games that Smoltz (2-4, 7.12), Penny (7-5, 5.07) and Buchholz (1-1, 6.05) have started, the Red Sox are 14-17. Those three will pitch 60 percent of the Red Sox' upcoming schedule, unless Wakefield (11-3, 4.31) can bounce back quickly from his sciatica. And with the young, the old and the inconsistent toeing the rubber that many times, the Red Sox bullpen will need to be well-rested to avoid an extended losing streak.
With the only team not over .500 in the 32-game stretch being the Blue Jays, the Red Sox will play 26 games in the next 34 days against clubs jockeying for postseason position. Given the Blue Jays' 51-54 record in the AL East and the chance of seeing Roy Halladay once and possibly twice in those six games, it's hard to count them out of this grueling schedule. The Red Sox might be 20-19 against AL teams over .500 this season, but eight of the 20 wins have come against one team: the Yankees.
Victor Martinez in the lineup or not, the Red Sox are going to need starting pitching to battle the Yankees and hold off the Rays for a position berth. The depth they once had suddenly isn't there, and what was once considered their biggest strength could end up being their biggest weakness down the stretch.
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