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With 14 games remaining in the regular season, the Red Sox finally seem to have their starting pitching in order, and perhaps even their playoff rotation set.
It's been a long time coming.
The Red Sox started the year reputed as having the best pitching depth in baseball. Yet, that notion seemed patently absurd over the past few months.
From the very beginning, Brad Penny was never cut out for the AL, particularly the AL East. Daisuke Matsuzaka was ineffective before going on the DL with a weakened shoulder. John Smoltz looked old, lacking in command, and utterly baffled on the mound. And Tim Wakefield broke down for the third year in a row, likely the result of being in his early 40s.
All of a sudden, the Red Sox had fallen out of first place, were slumping badly, and their playoff hopes razor thin.
But over the past month or so, the rotation has settled into a rhythm, and the Red Sox ship has been righted as it sails toward October.
What happened to account for this change for the better?
Smoltz and Penny were jettisoned, Clay Buchholz started to deliver on the promise that had been held out for so long, and Matsuzaka has returned rested and fresh.
But most importantly, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have established themselves as a premier one-two punch in a rotation that desperately needed stability and consistency. They are the foundation that the rest of the staff is built upon. And their confidence and leadership seem to be having a positive affect.
Over their last two starts each, this is how the Red Sox quartet of young pitchers have fared:
5 innings, 1 ER
8 innings, 3 ER
8 innings, 0 ER
6 innings, 3 ER
7 innings, 1 ER
6 innings, 1 ER
6 innings, 0 ER
5.1 innings, 3 ER
Cumulatively, the four Red Sox starters have combined for 51.1 innings over eight starts, allowing just 12 earned runs.
Odds are, that group comprises the Red Sox post-season rotation. Tim Wakefield, who will pitch tonight, likely can't be relied upon. Despite his impressive first half, Wakefield has been weakened and sidelined by sciatica. He returned gamely for an excellent start in is last outing, only to be shelved once more. Tonight is another test.
It may break Terry Francona's heart, but it's hard to imagine Wakefield making the playoff roster, much less starting in the post-season.
The real question then is who will comprise the three-man rotation that Francona will likely utilize in the playoffs? Will is be the greener, less experienced, but red hot Buccholz, or the more experienced, yet still unproven (in 2009, at the least) Matsuzaka?
My guess is that Francona will go with Buchholz, given Matsuzaka's issues this year, and his less than stellar start yesterday (5.1 innings, nine base runners allowed, 110 pitches). Of course that could change if Buchholz blows up in his next start, or if Matsuzaka shines in his next appearance.
One way or the other, as long as Matsuzaka's shoulder issues are behind him, the Sox will enter the post-season with three young, healthy, and potentially dominant pitchers. That bodes well for a team with genuine World Series aspirations.