Red Sox pitching is starting to come together

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Red Sox pitching is starting to come together

By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Depth could still be an issue, but with just 10 days to go before the start of the regular season, the Red Sox' starting rotation -- with one notable exception -- seems to be jelling.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, having changed his between-start routine at the behest of the team, has turned in two straight strong performances against qualitylineups. John Lackey, some 15 pounds lighter, seems to be pitching with more purpose and getting the desired results with a 1.72 ERA.

Clay Buchholz, off his breakout season, sports the best ERA of any Boston starter (0.69) while Jon Lester, who matched Roy Halladay pitch-for-pitch for five innings before giving up three runs in the sixth in a 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies Monday, has done nothing to suggest that his appointment as staff ace is misplaced.

Only Josh Beckett, who has endured big innings in each of his last starts, has looked less than sharp.

Monday's matchup with Halladay served as Lester's final extended outing of the spring. He got stretched out to 98 pitches before faltering some in the sixth. His next start, Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles, will see him scale back his work in anticipation of pitching the team's regular season opener at Texas on April 1.

"For the most part, he was really good," said Terry Francona evaluating Lester's outing. "He had a couple (at-bats) where he had four-pitch walks and just lost the zone for a minute. But his stuff was real good, he threw all of his pitches and got real deep into the game. So that's good."

Lester, of course, has little to prove after a career-best 19 wins last season. After a typically sub-par April, he was as good as any starter in the American League after his first three starts, going 19-7 with a 2.81 ERA after his first three starts.

There was little margin for error dueling with Halladay Monday, so until the sixth, he hardly made any. Not until Halladay himself singled sharply with two down in the fifth did Lester allow so much as a base hit.

Of the six hits he allowed, only one was hard hit -- a single by Ryan Howard in the Phils' three-run sixth.

"I had a pretty good five innings in terms of efficiency," said Lester. "I don't know if I just wanted that sixth inning to be over with in my mind, but the last inning obviously wasn't what I wanted."

At 27, with three full seasons in the rotation to his credit and 50 wins in that span, Lester would seem to be just now coming into his prime.

He can he his own worst critic -- of his six walks in his last two starts, Lester said: "Just sometimes being stupid, trying to do too much." - but he is also a relentless perfectionist. This spring, he's been determined to improve his pickoff move to first to slow down the opponent's running game.

Of course, a general sense of optimism reigned last March, too, after the Sox had added Lackey to an already solid rotation. But then Lackey struggled to adapt to life in the American League East, Matsuzaka was injured and inconsistent and Beckett weathered the worst season of his career, finishing with just a half-dozen wins.

Despite standout seasons from Lester and Buchholz, who were mentioned in the Cy Young conversation, the rotation underperformed as a whole. Their collective 4.17 ERA put them in the middle of the A.L. pack.

If Beckett can approximate the pitcher he was in 2007 and for a large chunk of 2009, the Sox could boast the league's deepest and best rotation.

And should one of the five become injured, the team's lack of depth could quickly become an issue. Tim Wakefield and Alfredo Aceves are capable options when healthy, but Wakefield is the game's oldest player and has visited the DL in each of the last three seasons while Aceves didn't pitch after May last season and was deemed too much of a physical risk by the pitching-starved Yankees.

(Felix Doubront, another potential replacement starter, has had a lost spring after experiencing elbow tightness in February and has yet to pitch in a game here).

With only marginal improvement from Lackey, the Sox could well have three starters (Lester, Buchholz and Lackey) capable of winning 15 or more games. And even the enigmatic Matsuzaka is better than the vast majority of No. 5 starters on other staffs.

That leaves Beckett as the key -- and perhaps the different between a good rotation and a great one.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

Jones-Molina WBC spat is a clash of cultures . . . and that's great

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Jones-Molina WBC spat is a clash of cultures . . . and that's great

The Adam Jones-Yadier Molina verbal skirmish is as predictable as it is annoying.

Was every cultural nuance for the 16 World Baseball Classic teams explained in a booklet the players had to memorize before the tournament?

No? Then it’s amazing there weren’t more moments like this.

Jones, the Orioles outfielder, said Team USA's championship game win over Puerto Rico was motivated by Puerto Rico's choice to plan a post-tournament parade for the team before the final game.

As Jones and his teammates know, parades in pro sports are for championship teams. Red Sox fans are likely aware of this.

As Jones and his teammates know, discussing a parade before a title is secured suggests overconfidence. Rex Ryan fans are likely aware of this.

After an 8-0 win for the U.S., Jones revealed the parade was used as bulletin-board material.

"Before the game, we got a note that there was some championship shirts made -- we didn't make 'em -- and a flight [arranged],” Jones said. “That didn't sit well with us. And a parade -- it didn't sit well with us."

But apparently, Jones didn't know the full context of the parade. It was reportedly planned regardless of whether Puerto Rico won.

One Team USA teammate of Jones whom CSNNE spoke with didn't believe that, however.

"It was called a champions parade that got turned into a celebration parade once they lost," the player said. "I think they just don't like getting called out by Jones, but all Jones did was tell exactly what happened."

Jones’ comments weren’t received well.

Puerto Rico's going through a trying time, a recession, and the entire island rallied behind the team.

“Adam Jones . . . is talking about things he doesn't know about," Molina told ESPN’s Marly Rivera. "He really has to get informed because he shouldn't have said those comments, let alone in public and mocking the way [preparations] were made.”

No one should be upset Jones explained what he was thinking.

Jones actually asked MLB Network host Greg Amsinger, “Should I tell the truth?”

Yes. It’s better than lying.

Look at the reactions across the WBC: the bat flips, the raw emotion. Honesty conveyed via body language.

People in the U.S. are starting to accept and crave those reactions. The WBC helped promote a basic idea: let people be themselves.

Jones said what was on his mind. We can’t celebrate bat flips and then say Jones should keep his mouth shut.

But there's an unreasonable expectation being placed on Jones here.

He heard about a parade -- which is to say, a subject he wouldn't normally think twice about or investigate before a championship baseball game.

Plus, it gave him motivation.

Why is Jones, or anyone with Team USA, more responsible for gaining an advance understanding of Puerto Rico’s parade-planning conventions -- we're talking about parade planning! -- than Puerto Rico is responsible for keeping U.S. norms in mind when making and/or talking about those plans?

No one involved here was thinking about the other’s perception or expectation. It's impossible to always do so.

But that’s how these moments develop: what’s obvious to one party is outlandish to the other.

Now Molina, Puerto Rico's catcher, wants an apology.

"He has to apologize to the Puerto Rican people," Molina told ESPN. "Obviously, you wanted to win; he didn't know what this means to [our] people."

Jones can clear the air with an apology, but he doesn't owe one. And he definitely doesn't owe one after Molina took it a step further.

"I'm sending a message to [Jones], saying, 'Look at this, right now you're in spring training working out, and we're with our people, with our silver medals,' " Molina said. "You're in spring training and you're working . . . you have no idea how to celebrate your honors, you don't know what it means.”

Team USA had no parade. Manager Jim Leyland made clear how the U.S. was celebrating, by recognizing those serving the country.

The silver lining here is how much attention the WBC has drawn, and how much conversation it can drive. People care, a great sign for the sport -- and its potential to foster better understanding across cultures.

Internationally, the sport is on parade.

Wright extends scoreless streak to 9 1/3 innings in Red Sox' 10-7 win over Pirates

Wright extends scoreless streak to 9 1/3 innings in Red Sox' 10-7 win over Pirates

The angst surrounding the David Price- and (possibly) Drew Pomeranz-less Red Sox starting rotation may have eased a little -- or a lot -- on Thursday.

Steven Wright extended his string of scoreless spring-training innings to 9 1/3 by blanking the Pirates for 4 1/3 innings in his third spring-traing start, leading the Sox to a 10-7 victory over the Pirates at SkyBlue Park.

Red Sox-Pirates box score

Wright allowed two hits -- the only two hits he's allowed this spring -- with one walk and three strikeouts.

Several of his pitching brethren, notably Heath Hembree and Robbie Ross Jr., didn't fare nearly as well. (See box score above.) But the Sox -- using what may be their regular-season batting order for the first time -- bailed them out with a 16-hit attack, led by Dustin Pedroia (3-for-3, now hitting ,500 for the spring). Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez, Jackie Bradley Jr., and, yes, Pablo Sandoval each added two hits. Sandoval also drove in three runs and is now hitting .362.

Xander Bogaerts went 1-for-4 in his return to the Sox from the World Baseball Classic.