Looking for a third Ace

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Looking for a third Ace

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

On paper, the Red Sox recently completed the most explosive offseason in franchise history, but for the smoking hot winter to translate into another World Series title, two carryovers from the 2010 team will have to step up their games.

And Im not talking Darnell MacDonald and Daniel Nava.

This week, both Josh Beckett and John Lackey arrived in romantic Fort Myers ready to move on from less-than-stellar seasons. Beckett clearly understands how deeply he disappointed Sox fans in 2010. John Lackey? Not so much. But theres one thing both players and the rest of the free world can agree on:

This year, the two supposed-to-be aces need to be better. If not, despite all the Hot Stove success, the Sox might find themselves in the same predicament as last season, and possibly, the same place in the standings.

Thats kind of dramatic. Im not trying to rain on our World Series parade. Its been a long time since Bostons been this confident about the team. Its been a while since the Sox have been so primed for a title.

They grabbed the best two free agents on the market; two killer bats that will be added into an already lethal, and finally healthy, line-up. They also went out and bolstered their bullpen with two legitimate veteran arms, which, combined with a more mature Daniel Bard and more focused Jonathan Papelbon, will give Boston one of the deepest and most reliable crews in the league.

Unlike last year, no ones worried about scoring runs (although despite low expectations and a high mortality rate, offense wasnt even the Sox issue last year: They still led the majors in OPS, were second in runs, second in homers and third in OBP); no ones worried about preventing runs, no ones worried about holding leads. No ones worried about anything except whether they can get off work for the Rolling Rally. And if all goes to plan, maybe it will be that easy. Maybe theyll win 100 games like Beckett suggested on Tuesday. Maybe the Sox will cruise.

But their ability to do so isnt resting on that new-and-improved lineup or the refurbished bullpen. Its about the one unit that remains untouched from last season; the one group most capable of taking the 2011 Sox from Paper Champions to legitimate juggernaut. And the two guys who, despite the pretty resumes and deep pockets, somehow still have the biggest fleet of doubters.

Beckett and Lackey. Lackey and Beckett. Beckey and Lackett. Whatever.

They need to step for the Red Sox to follow suit.

Becketts struggles last season arent much of a mystery. Fresh off his 68 million extension, he injured his back early, never recovered and was a non-factor. He finished with only six wins over 21 games and a 5.87 ERA so bad it offended Matt Clement. On Tuesday, he was asked about his lost season and predictably didnt mince words.

"At times it was a physical struggle," he said. "But things still should have been better than they were."

We can all agree.

Lackeys situation is a little less cut and dry. The big man certainly didnt live up to expectations last season, but speaking to the media on Monday, he downplayed the disappointment.

"There's definitely room for improvement," he said. "But there were definitely some numbers I can look at that were pretty good. My innings were good and there were a lot of quality starts. Honestly, I think all the evaluation was overblown a little bit. I'd only won more than 14 games once in my life. I led the team in quality starts and innings."

Thats how he chooses to remember it, but I think Sox fans are less impressed with the innings and more concerned with the fact that he set a career high in WHIP. That he tied a career high in walks and earned runs. That he pitched into eighth inning only six times in 2010 (with zero complete games), after doing so 10 times (with three CG) in 2009. That he honestly thinks reminding fans that hes only won more than 14 games once in his career is supposed to make them feel better.

Yeah, theres the fact that he led the team in innings, throwing seven more than Jon Lester. But theres also the fact that in those seven extra innings he gave up 66 more hits, 30 more earned runs and struck out 69 fewer batters than Lester.

And theres the 82 million contract.

Overblown evaluation or overpaid pitcher? You decide.

But this season, the decision belongs to Beckett and Lackey.

If were being honest (we are, right?), they dont even both need to come up big. The Sox could survive another mediocre season from either Beckett OR Lackey. But at least one guy needs to shake off the silliness of last season and become a third dominant force in the starting rotation. They cant leave Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester out on an island, they cant leave the team in a position to have to rely on Dice-K. They cant sit back and let another season on a high seven-figure deal slip away.

Theyre supposed to be the leaders. They should be pacing Lester and Buchholz, not the other way around. Theyre the two big money arms. Theyre the two World Series MVPs. Theyre the guys who youre supposed to roll out there once a week and know the other teams scared. The fact that Buchholz and Lester are as dominant as they are should be icing on the cake. People should be talking about the Sox in the same league as the Phillies Big 4. Or if not quite at that level, then at least to the point where those four starters, the new-and-improved lineup and the suddenly deep bullpen would absolutely run away with this division.

No one can match that. And no one would.

But right now, whether its a matter of physical or mental concerns (or a combination) with Beckett and Lackey, those two guys arent there, and for now, thats the largest hurdle standing between the Sox and the team everyone hopes theyll become.

And its up to either one (or both) of the veterans to carry the Sox over the top.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Sox may have finally found their everyday third baseman for the postseason

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Sox may have finally found their everyday third baseman for the postseason

BOSTON — As has been well-documented, the Red Sox have tried any number of solutions at third base this season, with eight different players getting starts at the position.

Travis Shaw has the most starts of anyone, with 99. But with three games left in the season, it's become apparent that Brock Holt is being viewed as the likely starter in the post-season.

Holt started all three games in the recent series in New York and was the starter Friday night against Toronto, too.

"You look at the consistent quality to the at-bats," said John Farrell, "and they've been there for him. That's not to say the other guys aren't important to us. But this is the time of year where you're looking to put the best, current lineup on the field and his versatility has shown up a number of ways. He's a confident defender at third base and his skill set is a little bit different from the other guys.

"So against righthanded pitching, that could be the guy we're going with."

Holt came into Friday hitting .319 (22-for-69) in the last 24 games.

Shaw, meanwhile, has been streaky to a fault. In the second half of the season, Shaw has posted a slash line of .195/.260/.362.

"We've seen (the streakiness both ways) in short spurts," Farrell said. "He does have the ability to carry us. But we're trying to get there and we're at a point in the year where every game is meaningful. That's not to say you turn your back on what he did earlier in the season. But we're looking for sparks somewhere."

What's more, Farrell had Holt hitting second in the lineup, in an effort to produce more offense. The Sox were limited to just eight runs in the three-game series at Yankee Stadium, and over the last 11 games, scored more than five runs just once.

Holt hit second, with Xander Bogaerts dropped to sixth.

"This is to create a little bit of a spark for us offensively," explained Farrell. "We've been grinding a little bit. And also, (we want) to create a little more (left-right) balance up and down the lineup."

TIME TO PLAY

As the final few regular season games of his career wind down, David Ortiz acknowledged that it's becoming increasing difficult to focus on the games with all the tributes and ceremonies going on.

In the final 11 days of the season, Ortiz will have had five pre-game ceremonies held in his honor -- and it would have been six had not Ortiz asked the Tampa Bay Rays to cancel the ceremony they had planned in the aftermath of the death that morning of pitcher Jose Fernandez.

On Thursday night, Ortiz has his family on the field for a pre-game celebration hosted by the New York Yankees.

Minutes later, he had to step in to the batter's box against CC Sabathia. Sometimes, it's hard to flip that switch and be emotionally ready to compete.

"I'm not going to lie to you -- it has (gotten harder)," said Ortiz. "We're already in the playoffs, so for the next three days, I don't really have to worry about it. But the best thing about it is that once we get into the playoffs, there's not going to be all these distractions.

"I like to mentally focus when we play, especially when I'm playing for a reason. We work extremely hard during the regular season to get into the playoffs and once we get there, I don't want to blow that off. It's not easy to (do all the ceremonies) and play baseball at the same time. It can be a distraction."

Friday’s Red Sox-Blue Jays lineups: Porcello goes for win No. 23

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Friday’s Red Sox-Blue Jays lineups: Porcello goes for win No. 23

The A.L. East-champion Red Sox, still fighting for playoff position, field their usual lineup as they open David Ortiz's final regular-season series tonight (7:10) against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox (92-67) are two games behind the Texas Rangers (94-65) in the race for the best record in the A.L., with the Cleveland Indians (91-67) a half-game behind Boston.

Rick Porcello (22-4, 3.11 ERA), the likely Game 1 starter in the ALDS, will try to add to his Cy Young Award resume tonight. He’ll be opposed by right-hander Marco Estrada (9-9, 3.53).

The Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles (both 87-72) are tied for the A.L. wild-card lead with the Detroit Tigers (85-73) 1 1/2 games back.

It’s the final regular season series for Oritz, with ceremonies planned to honor the retiring Red Sox DH prior to each of the final three game this weekend. 

The lineups:

RED SOX

Dustin Pedroia 2B

Brock Holt 3B

Mookie Betts RF

David Ortiz DH

Hanely Ramirez 1B

Xander Bogaerts SS

Jackie Bradley CF

Sandy Leon C

Andrew Benintendi LF

Rick Porcello P

 

BLUE JAYS

Eziquiel Carrera LF

Josh Donaldson 3B

Edwin Encarnacion DH

Jose Bautista RF

Russell Martin C

Troy Tulowitzki SS

Justin Smoak 1B

Kevin Pillar CF

Devon Travis 2B

Marco Estrada RHP