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

Saturday's Red Sox-Royals lineups: Young in LF, Hill at 3B vs. KC lefty Duffy

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Saturday's Red Sox-Royals lineups: Young in LF, Hill at 3B vs. KC lefty Duffy

The Red Sox look to end their three-game losing streak tonight when the play the middle game of their three-game series with the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park.

Against Royals' left-hander Danny Duffy (11-1, 2.66 ERA), the Red Sox start right-handed hitters Chris Young in left field and Aaron Hill at third base. Duffy has won his past 10 decisions and came into Saturday with the fifth-best ERA in the American League. He joined the rotation from the bullpen on June 1.

Left-hander David Price (12-8, 4.00) gets the start for the Red Sox. Price has won his past three decisions, going eight, six and eight innings and not allowing more than three runs in each start. 

The Royals won the series opener 6-3 Friday night.

The lineups:

ROYALS
Paulo Orlando CF
Cheslor Cuthbert 3B
Lorenzo Cain RF
Eric Hosmer 1B
Kendrys Morales DH
Salvador Perez C
Alex Gordon LF
Alcides Escobar SS
Christian Colon 2B
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Danny Duffy LHP

RED SOX
Dustin Pedroia 2B
Xander Bogaerts SS
David Ortiz DH
Mookie Betts RF
Hanley Ramirez 1B
Sandy Leon C
Chris Young LF
Aaron Hill 3B
Jackie Bradley Jr. CF
---
David Price LHP

Quotes, notes and stars: Betts has first career five-hit night

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Quotes, notes and stars: Betts has first career five-hit night

BOSTON - Quotes, notes and stars from the Red Sox' 6-3 loss to the Kansas City Royals

QUOTES:

"We continually do a great job in creating opportunities and I'm confident that (the struggles with men in scoring position) will turn.'' - John Farrell

"When you start off with a five-run spot in the first, that's a tough deficit to overcome.'' - Steven Wright.

"That's how it goes sometimes. Sometimes, we score when we're not expecting to and then when we need to score, sometimes it doesn't happen.'' - Mookie Betts on the team going 4-for-15 with RISP.

 

NOTES:

* The loss was just the third in the last 13 series openers for the Red Sox.

* The game marked the first time in 20 home games in which the Sox never led.

* Boston was 4-for-15 with runners in scoring position.

* The first four hitters in the order were 13-for-19 (.684). The fifth-through-nine hitters, however, were just 2-for-21 (.095).

* Mookie Betts (five hits) leads the majors with 55 multi-hit games.

* Dustin Pedroia has reached base in each of his last eight plate appearances.

* David Ortiz's double was the 625th of his career, passing Hank Aaron to move into 10 place in MLB history.

* Ortiz leads the A.L. in doubles (41) and extra-base hits (72).

 

STARS:

1) Eric Hosmer

Hosmer cranked a three-run homer into the Monster Seats four batters into the game, and the Royals were off and running with a five-run inning.

2) Ian Kennedy

The Royals starter wasn't dominant, allowing nine hits in 5 1/3 innings, but he bailed himself out of a number of jams and limited the Sox to just two runs.

3) Mookie Betts

Betts had his first career five-hit night and knocked in two of the three Red Sox runs, though he also got himself picked off first base.