Top of the rotation threatens to doom Sox again

Top of the rotation threatens to doom Sox again
July 17, 2013, 12:45 pm
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(AP Images)

With the All-Star Game in the rear view, the Red Sox have two days of rest and relaxation before kicking off the second half. When the action gets underway, they’ll be back at Fenway, against the Yankees, with a two-and-a-half game lead in the AL East and their two best pitchers ready to set the tone.
 
The fact that those “two best pitchers” are Felix Doubront and John Lackey should be depressing news, and in many ways it is, but given the events of the last few months, the performance of Doubront and Lackey (probably the staff’s two biggest winter question marks), has been both inspiring and just about the only reason Boston’s still holding on to the top spot in the American League.
 
What if they’re still the two best pitchers come September? We’ll get there in a second, but first, a little love for this unlikely pair of heroes.
 
The 25-year old Doubront has unquestionably been Boston’s trustiest starter, which is funny because when the season began he was about as reliable as connecting flight in Philadelphia. He showed up to Spring Training out of shape, looking more like Rich Garces than the promising young arm that the Sox were counting on. His velocity was down. His delivery was a mess. After a so-so start to the regular season, Doubront actually found himself in the bullpen, and in his first relief appearance, gave up six earned runs over 5.1 innings to raise his ERA to a hefty 6.70.
 
Then he got another chance, and in the 11 starts since Doubront has been everything and more that the Sox had hoped. He’s only 3-2 over that time, but has sported a 2.70 ERA, hasn’t given up more than three runs in any start, and his pitched into the seventh inning in four of his last five. On the Sox recent road trip, he went 2-0 in starts in Anaheim and Seattle, pitching 13.2 innings, while striking out 11 and walking only four.
 
He’ll take the ball on Friday (on eight days rest) against the Yankees, a team he already beat earlier this season in the Bronx (six innings, one earned run) and against whom he has a career record of 2-1 with a 2.52 ERA.
 
John Lackey will follow Doubront in the rotation, annnnnnd . . . I’m not sure what else we can say about him at this point. With apologies to Jose Iglesias, Lackey’s emergence qualifies as the most surprising development in a season that’s been defined by them. He’s gone at least seven innings in each of his last six starts, and over that span he’s 4-1, with 41 strikeouts and only eight walks. For the season, his 2.78 ERA ranks fourth in the American League. And he’s not doing it with smoke and mirrors. The velocity on Lackey’s fastball has rivaled what it was in Anaheim, the movement on his curveball is even better. Credit health, conditioning, focus, the absence of Josh Beckett, or the arrival of John Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves, Lackey has become the dude who Theo Epstein shelled out the big bucks for.
 
He’s become . . . likable? Maybe (OK, definitely) not on the level of, say, a Dustin Pedroia, but yeah, at the very least, Lackey’s been an uplifting and undoubtedly positive aspect of this season. You look forward to watching him pitch, and somehow have complete faith that he’ll get the job done when he takes the mound on Saturday. He’s part of the solution. For now, his problems appear to be in the past.
 
But as we move on into the second half, and eventually down the stretch on the 2013 season, the problems of Red Sox past aren’t entirely old news. Despite all the strides the organization has taken to trot out a more genuine and likable product, there’s one portion of the roster that continues to give off a funky scent, and is threatening to derail yet another season.
 
It’s the answer to the question: How in the world are John Lackey and Felix Doubront the Red Sox best two pitchers?!
 
Because Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz aren’t who we thought were -- at least not who they were while leading Boston to this surprising start.
 
Buchholz’s issue is a familiar one. He can’t stay healthy, and the latest development in his saga doesn’t instill all that much confidence. After missing more than a month with a strained neck, Buchholz told reporters over the All-Star break that there’s really no risk to him coming back to pitch, but he “just doesn’t feel comfortable doing it.” He added: “If it was September, we’re pushing, that’s what you pitch for is to pitch in those situations. If it came up to that, then absolutely, but we’re not to that point yet.”
 
So basically, he’ll take his time coming back. And in a way, you understand where he’s coming from. With the Sox holding their own while their presumed ace is on the mend, maybe he shouldn’t rush back too quickly. But there’s just something unsettling about Buchholz's approach, something eerily reminiscent of the attitude that sunk this team two years ago. Even if it’s just the sheer unawareness of how his words will be perceived on the outside, and the example it sets for a clubhouse full of guys who are playing through an assortment of injuries, most of which we don’t even know about.
 
The scary thing is that at this point, it’s not like Buchholz is just going to wake up one morning and decided he wants back in the rotation. I mean, let’s say the Sox drop two of three to the Yankees this weekend, and find themselves neck and neck with the Rays heading into a huge four-game series. In that situation, Buchholz won’t have the option of finding that urgency and donning his cape and flying out to save the day. He still needs to prove himself in bullpen sessions and might need three rehab starts before he’s back in the fray. If he doesn’t act soon, a September return might be the only option. And what will the team look like then?
 
Either way, it would help if Jon Lester finally figured things out, but at this point, the signal has been up there for more than two years, and it’s more than reasonable to wonder if Lester will ever regain the status he earned earlier in his career.
 
Of course, there were a few promising signs at the start of this season. Lester was 6-0 over his first nine starts, with a 2.72 ERA. He went six strong innings in seven of the nine; he pitched into the seventh in five of them. He struck at least five batters in every start, while amassing a total of 50 strike outs and only 15 walks. For many of the same excuses we’re now using to explain Lackey’s reemergence, there was every reason to believe that Lester was back, and ready to erase the ugly chapter of his Sox career.
 
But today, that start feels about as distant as Lester’s 2008 no-hitter. That guy is gone, and there’s still no reasonable explanation for where he went or if he’ll ever be back. Since May 15, Lester is 2-6 with a 6.49 ERA. After walking only 15 guys over his first nine starts, he’s walked 30 over his last 11, and has gone seven innings on just three occasions.
 
And with the second half soon to be underway and the MLB Trade Deadline fast approaching, that leaves the Sox in an interesting predicament. In a perfect world, the rotation is set. With the performance of Doubront and Lackey, combined with what the team is supposed to have in Buchholz and Lester, Ben Cherington shouldn’t have to stress over another starting arm. Instead he should be free to focus his time and resources on stabilizing the bullpen and finding another infielder. But as it is right now, the rotation is a question mark. And the two biggest issues are once again the guys who were supposed to be the foundation.
 
And to tell you the truth, and the end of the day, it might not even matter who the Sox pick up at the deadline. Unless Cliff Lee is coming to town, and that seems like a stretch, no one that Boston acquires fill the void left by the best of what Buchholz and Lester are supposed to offer.
 
As a result, despite all the good vibes surrounding this team and reasons to believe that things are changing over in the Sox clubhouse, they’ll find themselves done in by unfortunately familiar enemy.
 
Starting pitchers who don’t get it or just don’t have it.