By Sean McAdam
BOSTON -- Remember when everyone thought the Red Sox' primary problem was producing with runners in scoring position?
Seems almost quaint now.
Actually, as was painfully obvious Monday night, the real issue is starting pitching.
Daisuke Matsuzaka's stinker Monday night against the Tampa Bay Rays would seem to validate that. Matsuzaka labored through the first two innings, couldn't retire a hitter in the third, and was gone after allowing seven runs on eight hits. The same Rays who had scored just 11 runs in eight previous losses topped that figure last night by the sixth.
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Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon stacked his lineup with left-hander hitters -- between nautral lefties and switch-hitters, he had just one right-hander, B.J. Upton, in his batting order -- in the hopes of gaining an edge on Matsuzaka.
But left, right . . . it didn't seem to matter.
"We love when guys throw strikes," rued Terry Francona. "But there were balls that were middle-middle for seven straight hitters."
The evening constituted Matsuzaka's shortest start since April 14, 2009 in Oakland, after which, it's worth mentioning, he was placed on the disabled list because of shoulder weakness.
(For the record, Francona insisted that Matsuzaka is healthy and there are no physical issues.)
The beating eliminated any hint of momentum the Red Sox had gained the night before with Josh Beckett's brilliant effort against the Yankees. Suddenly, the Sox' first series win of the season seemed very long ago.
And that's the issue with the team's poor starting pitching. Without solid outings from the rotation, a winning streak -- or a stretch in which the Sox make forward progress -- seems almost unimaginable.
Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher, goes one of baseball's oldest bromides. But for now, momentum for the Red Sox is non-existent.
After two full turns through the starting rotation, they have exactly two quality starts. Their collective starters' ERA sits at 7.24; take away Beckett's effort Sunday against New York and Lester's all-for-naught effort in the road trip finale in Cleveland, and the starters' ERA soars to 10.25.
The offense still hasn't righted itself completely, either. On Monday night the team stranded 11 more baserunners, bringing their total in the last two games to a staggering 27. The Sox continue to hit below .200 with runners in scoring position.
But in 10 games so far, the Sox have scored five runs three times and still lost. In precisely half the games, they've managed four or more runs -- and lost, anyway.
On Monday night, the frustration was evident in the clubhouse after the eighth loss in 10 tries. Matsuzaka sat, still in uniform, staring into his locker for nearly 25 minutes after the loss, seemingly shell-shocked, invoking memories of a similar postgame meltdown following a poor outing in the 2007 ALCS against Cleveland in his first season with the Sox.
Per usual, he offered precious little insight about his failings, speaking only in the most obvious platitudes.
The inability of the team's starters to get into the middle innings on a consisent basis seemed to be wearing on others, too. Dustin Pedroia, normally one of the club's most upbeat members, looked over his shoulder as a crowd of reporters approached and said: "I've got nothing to say, guys."
And indeed, the Sox look lost.
There seems little doubt that the lineup, projected as one of the game's most fearsome, is coming around. Two slumping regulars provided clues that they're about to break out: Kevin Youkilis doubled in his final at-bat, one plate apperance after he had hit hit a vicious line drive which resulted in a double play, and Carl Crawford, matched against his former team, had a two-hit game.
But no such signs are visible for the rotation. Both Matsuzaka and John Lackey have been pasted in their two starts, and newly-extended Clay Buchholz,while not quite as bad, has also been hit hard both times.
Two quality starts in 10 tries is not going to lift the Sox from the division's basement.
For now, expect no drastic shakeups in the rotation. The Sox must hope that Matsuzaka can correct his issues on the side and keep his team in the game more times than not -- a modest enough goal, to be sure, but reasonable for a No. 5 starter, regardless of international pedigree and salary.
There are options beyond Matsuzaka, including Alfredo Aceves, who turned in 2 23 innings of hitless relief, and more intriguingly, Felix Doubront, whose spring was interruped with elbow tightness.
But once the Sox yank Matsuzaka from the rotation, he becomes dead weight. It's hard to envision him being productive out of the bullpen.
And yet, surely, the Sox can't let this continue for much longer. While the Yankees' lineup has bailed out some below-average starts from their equally uncertain rotation, the Red Sox haven't had that luxury.
Even if the hitters begin producing as expected, the season is too long to fully rely on one component to continually compensate for the failings of another.