By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com Red Sox Insider Follow @sean_mcadam
BOSTON -- At this point, the Red Sox seem locked into a race with the clock, trying to determine if they can get to the All-Star break before another injury strikes.
For a while, it had been position players who were coming up hobbled, crowding the trainer's room and disabled list. Lately it's been pitchers.
Jon Lester did not return for the fifth inning Tuesday night depite having no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays for the first four innings. He suffered from a pulled left lat and was replaced by Matt Albers.
After holding off the Jays 3-2, the Red Sox and Lester stressed that the injury wasn't a major one, but it will undoubtedly require some creative restructuring for the Sox for the first next two weeks.
Consider: Of the five Red Sox pitchers who began the season in the starting rotation, one is one out for the season (Daisuke Matsuzaka); one has already spent time on the DL and continues to battle elbow issues (John Lackey); one is currently on the DL with a lingering back issue (Clay Buchholz), and another seems headed there (Lester). Only Josh Beckett has been mostly healthy, and he recently went 15 days in between starts because of the flu.
Sometime Wednesday, Lester will likely be placed on the DL, making him eligible to return July 21.
There remains the outside chance that the Sox will elect not to DL Lester and simply use the calendar and All-Star break to manipulate things. Theoretically, they could use someone on staff (Alfredo Aceves) to take Lester's final start of the first half Sunday, then stack their rotation so that Lester is at the back end when they return from the break.
Such an arrangement would give Lester 13 days' rest, without requiring a DL stint. But it would also leave Terry Francona and pitching coach Curt Young a pitcher short as they navigate the final two series of the first half and first one after the break.
The setback for Lester comes at a time when he seemingly had gotten over a rough patch of outings. After seven shutout innings against the Phillies last week to avert a sweep in Philadelphia, Lester was brilliant Tuesday night, retiring 12 of 13 hitters he faced, five by strikeout.
Moreover, it comes at a time when uncertainty surround two fellow starters. Lackey appears lost on the mound, all the while denying that his elbow is a factor in the downturn. If Lackey isn't hurt -- or refuses to acknowledge that he is -- the Sox have no choice but to run him out to the mound once every five nights, hoping against hope for better results.
Lackey currently has the worst ERA of any qualifying starter in either league. His trade value is non-existent and the Red Sox are on the hook for three more full seasons after this one.
Then there's the mysterious case of Buchholz, whose back hasn't been right since right for more than a month, leading to a trip to see a specialist Wednesday morning.
If Buchholz remains out well past the break and Lester is forced to miss a start or two, the Red Sox will face an injury strain as bad as the one which hit the club at midseason last year, when half of their infield, both catchers and two-thirds of their outfield all occupied spots on the DL.
Without Buchholz and Lester, the Red Sox are left with exactly one dependable starter: Beckett.
Both Tim Wakefield and Andrew Miller have performed better than expected, but the former has a recent history of breaking down in the second half while the latter has 16 career wins as a starter.
The Sox are fortunate to have had such satisfactory pitching depth to date. Already this seasson, the Sox have used eight starters. If they need to get a spot start out of either Kevin Millwood or Felix Doubront Sunday, that number will swell to nine.
If any of the Big Three (Beckett, Lester or Buchholz) are lost for an extended period, the Sox shouldn't count on reinforcements from the trade market. Unlike last year, when bonafide front-of-the-rotation starters were available in midseason (Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee), the best available starter this summer is Houston's Wandy Rodriguez, who would be no better than the equivalent of a No. 4 for the Red Sox.
(The thin market doesn't begin to factor in that the Sox' inventory of prospects has been stripped bare by the Adrian Gonzalez deal.)
The Yankees have somehow managed to remain in first place in a season in which their bullpen has been decimated by injuries (Pedro Feliciano, Damaso Marte, Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano) and their rotation has been held together from surprise contributions from veterans such as Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon.
Now it is the Red Sox' turn to similarly ride out this rough patch. The alternatives -- in every sense of the word -- aren't pretty.