By Sean McAdam
BOSTON -- It was June of last season when the injuries began to wash over the Red Sox like a tsunami, one position player after another felled.
In a matter of weeks, the Red Sox lost Dustin Pedroia and Victor Martinez to a growing list of players on the DL, joining Jacoby Ellsbury. Soon, Mike Cameron, Jason Varitek and Kevin Youkilis joined them, consigning the Red Sox to a third-place finish and a DNQ for the postseason.
Now, a quarter way through 2011, the injuries are hitting again, only this time, it's the pitching staff that is being struck. In the span of 24 hours, two starting pitchers were placed on the disabled list. First came John Lackey with a tender elbow; Tuesday night, Daisuke Matsuzaka joined him with the same malady.
It could be worse, of course. The top three starters -- Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz, who have pitched to a collective 2.97 ERA -- are healthy.
And given that Lackey (8.01) has struggled mightily and Matsuzaka (5.30) nearly as much recently, the temptation is to suggest that these losses are, in the big picture, hardly significant.
But that ignores the fact that injuries to a pitching staff have a domino-like effect. In filling Lackey and Matsuzaka's spots in the rotation with two members of the bullpen -- Tim Wakefield and Alfredo Aceves -- the Sox are depleting their relief depth, a fact that shouldn't be underestimated.
Aceves had been providing valuable innings out of the bullpen, particularly in the absence of Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks, who themselves are still on the DL. With Aceves shifted into the rotation, the Sox will now have to designate someone else to handle the seventh inning - or eighth, on nights in which Daniel Bard is unavailable. Matt Albers, another veteran who has quietly surpassed expectations, is the likely choice.
(How widespread have the pitching injuries been? Of the 12 pitchers who constituted the pitching staff which opened the season with the club on April 1, five -- or nearly 50 percent -- have now spent time on the DL: Matsuzaka, Lackey, Wheeler, Jenks and Dennys Reyes, the latter of whom has since been re-assigned to the minor leagues.)
It doesn't help that the rash of pitching injuries have struck at a time when the Sox are in the middle of a stretch of the schedule which finds them without an off-day until June 2. That, more than the wet conditions, may explain the decision Tuesday to postpone the final game of the mini-series with the Baltimore Orioles.
It's uncertain what the Red Sox will get from their plug-in starters. In two spot starts to date, Wakefield threw one gem -- matching Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez pitch-for-pitch on May 1 -- and another that was far more ordinary (six earned runs in just 4 13 innings against Minnesota on the last homestand). It's likely that Wakefield's starts going forward will fall somewhere in between those two.
As for Aceves, the general consensus is that his stuff plays out better as a starter. He's been terrific in his relief role (just 12 hits allowed in 17 13 innings and a 1.038 WHIP). But Aceves's history suggests that he's brittle, the chief reason the Yankees didn't tender him a contract last fall despite their obvious need for pitching inventory.
In general, the loss of pitching is more crippling than the loss of everyday players, unless that everyday player is, say, Albert Pujols. Most times, as the Red Sox demonstrated throughout most of the summer before the cumulative toll became too great, a team can withstand the loss of a key position player or two.
Pitching is, by defition, tougher to replace since pitchers tend to impact the outcome of a specific game more than any other player on the field. Also, pitching depth is almost always thinner than it is for position players.
It's worth noting that while Wakefield and Aceves are quality fill-in options, they each would have been bypassed for Felix Doubront. Like Yamaico Navarro, however, Doubront picked a costly time to be injured at Pawtucket. Doubront would have been chosen for one of the openings had he not been sidelined by a groin pull, the second nagging injury since spring training.
If there's a silver lining to the spate of starter injuries -- beyond the obvious point that the team's Big Three remain healthy -- it's that Lackey and Matsuzaka, as they were performing of late, shouldn't be hard to replace.
After all, it's not as though they were dominating hitters and routinely taking the Red Sox deep into games. All that's being asked of Wakefield and Aceves for the time being is to keep the Sox in games through the middle innings -- hardly a high standard.
How will the Sox respond over the next few weeks as Matsuzaka and Lackey recover and staff shuffling continues? That's impossible to say.
But because the injuries are taking place just as the team begins to perform as expected (7-2 over the last nine games), it has potential for disruption.
Worse, for a team which weathered a staggering number of injuries at midseason last year, there's the disconcerting notion that this season is starting to resemble, at least somewhat anyway, last.