First pitch: Bats make Red Sox shortcomings a total team effort

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First pitch: Bats make Red Sox shortcomings a total team effort

TORONTO -- From the very first week of the season, the Red Sox' starting pitching failed them.

Josh Beckett had five different starts in which he allowed six runs or more. Clay Buchholz, perhaps mindful of the lower back stress fracture he suffered last season, seemed tentative until late May. Daisuke Matsuzaka has more trips to the DL than he has wins. And Jon Lester, who began the season with one of the best winning percentages in franchise history, is now three games under .500.

Had Beckett -- when he was here -- Buchholz and Lester pitched better, perhaps the Red Sox would still be on the fringe of the wild card race, rather than playing out the string and facing an uphill battle to match last September's total of seven wins in the final full month of the season.

But in a 5-0 loss to the Blue Jays Sunday, there were reminders that pitching is not the only sore spot for the Sox going forward. Sunday represented the seventh time this season that the Sox were blanked.

That's only half of it, however. Eighteen other times, the Sox have been limited to just a single run. So, in 25 of their 145 games -- or, on average more than once every five games, the Sox have scored zero or one runs.

That's once per week over the course of a six-month season. And, of course, it's way too often.

For the last month or so, the Red Sox have admittedly been playing with something far less than their regular lineup. Will Middlebrooks broke his hand in the first week of August and won't play again. David Ortiz, except for a brief one-game return, has been out since the end
of July.

Those injuries have robbed the Sox' offense of two of their three biggest run producers. Thought a rookie, Middlebrooks has the second-highest slugging percentage on the team. The only player with a higher percentage? Ortiz.

Throw in the trade that sent away Adrian Gonzalez, who seemed to be re-discovering his power stroke in the weeks before the blockbuster deal that sent him to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Sox are missing three players, who were they here and available, would literally represent the middle third of the Boston batting order.

Those absences can't be absorbed without some cracks showing in the offense.

But the fact is that the offensive shortcomings didn't just materialize in the last few weeks; they've merely been highlighted. And it's painfully obvious that in addition to bolstering their rotation, the Sox must also pay attention to their offense this winter.

Middlebrooks will return, presumably healthy, and will get better in his second year in the big leagues. But both Ortiz and Cody Ross -- the next-most productive offensive force on the roster -- are free agents and while both have said it's their wish to returned, they can't be
counted until new deals are signed.

Further, the team may have to investigate trading Jacoby Ellsbury for pitching. One major league executive, asked recently about the chances of the Sox getting Ellsbury to agree to a contract extension before he reaches free agency, replied without hesitation: "Zero.''

Even if Ellsbury fetches a quality starter in return, his departure will only create another opening in the batting order, throwing, for now, all three outfield spots open -- to say nothing of DH, first base and shortstop.

Should Ross and Ortiz rejoin Middlebrooks, the Sox need more punch.

There may be no more misleading stat than the Sox ranking fourth in runs scored among the 14 American League teams. Anyone watching the club this year understands that their total is skewed by the Sox scoring double-figures in runs in one-sided games, though, tellingly, also in two games in which they still lost.

So while the rotation remains the chief focal point to get the Sox back to contender status -- or merely respectable again -- it's not as if the offense is trouble-free. If upgrades aren't made alongside pitching improvements, next year could see the team losing again, in low-scoring games.

Red Sox aggressively chasing big-name pitchers like Fernandez, Cole

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