Red Sox Recovering from Early Season 'Staff Infection'

 

Oh, so this is what the Theo Epstein had in mind this off-season.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the Red Sox -- once considered nothing more than a weathered fishing vessel lost in the waters of the American League -- are quickly registering on the radars of battleship-like contenders around baseball like a surfacing submarine in preparation for attack mode.

Following Tuesday night’s series-clinching win at Tropicana Field against baseball’s top team record-wise, the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston has now won seven of their last eight games. An impressive statistic only made more notable by the competition featured on the schedule during this stretch -- the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays -- three of whom are atop their respective divisions with a combined record of 84-50, while the latter [Yankees] currently sit eight games above .500 at 26-18.

The fuel for this Red Sox resurgence is the exact same grade used by the New York Yankees during their trip to a World Series title in 2009 -- as well as that which helped propel the Tampa Bay Rays while they coasted to an early A.L. East division lead here in 2010 -- premium starting pitching. This is why they are now one of the top sportsbook betting favorites, a far cry from where they were just a couple weeks ago.

 

 

A powerful offense has been an enormously eminent aspect of any successful American League team in recent decades. So, when the Red Sox announced intentions of shifting focus more towards defensively oriented strategies this off-season -- and in the wake of losing slugger Jason Bay to the Mets in free-agency -- fans who had grown accustomed to the typically atypical 12-11 victory in past seasons required a brief adjustment period as many believed those same games would now be more of the 3-2 variety.

Instead, those fans who entered Fenway Park early this season with enormous stacks of signs bearing the letter ’K’ -- meant to pay homage to each slain victim of the newly-formed murderers row of starting pitching -- as opposed to the usual beer league softball mitt normally used in defense from the inevitable barrage of home run balls to be peppered amongst the bleachers, were met with unexpected circumstances.

With Daisuke Matsuzaka spending the early part of 2010 on the disabled list yet again, combined with the initial struggles of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, the pleasantly surprising production from an offensive standpoint went unnoticed; overshadowed by the team’s inability to stay above .500, much less compete with the likes of New York and Tampa Bay in Major League Baseball‘s most ruthless and unforgiving division.

However, like so many of the greatest things in the world, the Red Sox’s rotation just needed a period of time to develop into fruition. Fortunately for Red Sox Nation, that time period, which felt more like a devastating thunderstorm in passing, appears to have dissipated for the most part. Fittingly, as summertime ascends upon us, the forecast in ‘Red Sox Nation’ appears increasingly favorable thanks to one facet of the club in particular -- the same one addressed with a notable addition this off-season -- starting pitching.

The importance of quality pitching from the starting rotation emphasized by Theo Epstein this winter, exemplified by the signing of top free-agent pitcher, John Lackey, is just now starting to pay the kind of dividends that instigated this whole run-prevention philosophy in the first place.

Despite the still lingering back problems with recently contractually-extended front-line starter, Josh Beckett, the starting rotation is coming into form as of late, going 4-0 in its previous four games with an ERA of 0.32. Not coincidentally, the rotation’s transformation into domination has directly coincided with Boston’s recent 7-1 record and its relative emergence as a force in the American League.

The latest pitching-induced handcuffing has come at the expense of the Rays and their once almost comfortable feeling stranglehold on the American League East standings.

In fact, Tuesday night’s 2-0 win marked the second one-hit shutout by Red Sox pitching in just four days -- the other occurring Saturday when Daisuke Matsuzaka nearly no-hit the Philadelphia Phillies in Boston‘s 5-0 win. Perhaps even more notably than the performances coming against two of the top teams from each league, both occurred away from the friendly confines of Fenway Park, where the Red Sox had previously struggled -- entering Daisuke’s start Saturday with a 8-10 record on the road.

Spearheaded by Jon Lester’s performance in the win last night (6 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 9 K), Boston is now a season-high five games above .500 with a record of 26-21, as well as being on the brink of sweeping first-place Tampa Bay in their own turf -- potentially returning the favor for that mid-April sweep in Boston courtesy of these very same Rays.

Lester’s most recent outing can hardly be considered unexpected by any individual with a pulse given his turnaround as of late. After experiencing all too familiar early-season turbulences, leading to an 0-2 record and ERA of 8.44 after his first three starts of 2010, the big lefty has been nothing short of magnificent since earning a no-decision against Baltimore on April, 23rd. Since then, Lester has gone 5-0 with an ERA of 1.64 in his past six starts -- nearly all against playoff caliber teams -- raising his overall record to 5-2 while lowering his ERA to 3.15.

Jon Lester isn’t the only young, home-grown talent excelling this season as a part of the Red Sox’s starting five (or six for that matter). Highly-touted pitcher and former no-hit artist, Clay Buchholz, has elevated his game off the ground and more towards that ceiling that is so often mentioned in regards to his talents with an aspect rarely ever seen before in his pitching: consistency.

In the early goings of 2010, while nearly every other member of the rotation struggled to some degree, it was Buchholz who held the team together for the most part on the days that he was scheduled.

On April 16th in Toronto, the Red Sox won a thrilling 13-12 game that saw the staff as a whole burn through 186 pitches from seven different pitchers after the game’s starter, Josh Beckett, lasted just three innings of work. With a depleted bullpen going into the following day’s game against the same offense that amassed 12 runs on 16 hits on Beckett the night before, Boston needed Buchholz to step up and eat innings effectively -- and on the road, nonetheless. He did just that, hurling eight innings and surrendered just one run in the 2-1 win.

Similarly, after Beckett failed to get through five innings in a 7-6 comeback win against the Yankees on May 18th, leaving exactly 100 pitches worth of work to the five different relievers who succeeded him, Clay was again called upon the following night for damage control duties -- and again, he delivered. This time, against Minnesota, Buchholz fired eight more innings in yet another one-run victory, giving up just a pair of runs on five hits while striking out seven and walking one.

On the season, Buchholz has allowed just three home runs in 55 2/3 innings of work and has earned a win in each of his past three outings. His six wins and 3.07 ERA currently lead all qualifying Red Sox pitchers -- an impressive feat for a guy who had to fight for his place in the rotation that was already chalked-full of top-tier starters entering spring training.

While a little bit of youth is a welcomed part of any team, it’s a solid balance of veteran leadership blended with that youth that is ultimately desired -- and the Red Sox have exactly that in 43 year-old Tim Wakefield.

With no intentions of belittling the contributions of Josh Beckett, it’s thanks to Tim Wakefield that the Sox have continued to roll despite the absence of their rotation’s anchor [Beckett]. In two May starts, while shuffling back and forth from the typically unfamiliar territories of the bullpen to give Beckett some recovery time, Wakefield has fired fifteen innings, allowing just three runs on ten hits while walking only three.

The Red Sox are noticeably gaining confidence, and with good reason. Winners of four straight and currently sitting a season-high five games above .500, Boston is getting healthier and gaining rhythm.

Lineup spots once designated for Darnell McDonald and Bill Hall on a regular basis are being redirected to Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron and to a lesser extent, Jeremy Hermida -- thanks to a return from injuries for the latter two [Ellsbury, Cameron].

David Ortiz pleaded for patience during his struggles at the onset of the season -- at least one person listened. Thankfully for Ortiz, and retrospectively for the fans, that person was manager Terry Francona. In the month of May alone, Ortiz has raised his batting average well over a hundred points from where it sat at the end of April through Tuesday night’s game in Tampa Bay -- a game where Ortiz confidently stroked a 2-out opposite field double in the third inning off of James Shields, who pitched brilliantly, plating the game’s only runs from either team.

And yet, just as it was heading into the season, the reason for optimism in Boston is sourced from the mound -- namely by the starting pitching. With the rotation still not at full-strength without its unquestionable leader, Josh Beckett, who remains hindered by back problems, one scary fact is becoming clear to the rest of the league:

While it’s difficult to imagine in the midst of such an incredible string of pitching performances, the best of the Boston Red Sox may be yet to come.

Hey, better late than never...unless your allegiance lies with one of the other thirteen teams that comprise the American League, of course.

 

 

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