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

Red Sox celebration quickly washes away walk-off loss

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Red Sox celebration quickly washes away walk-off loss

NEW YORK -- It had the potential to be the most awkward celebration ever.

In the top of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium, before their game was complete, the Red Sox became American League East champions, by virtue of one other division rival -- Baltimore -- coming back to beat another -- Toronto -- in the ninth inning.

That eliminated the Blue Jays from the division race, and made the Sox division champs.

But that ninth inning reversal of fortune was about to visit the Red Sox, too.

Craig Kimbrel faced four hitters and allowed a single and three straight walks, leading to a run. When, after 28 pitches, he couldn't get an out, he was lifted for Joe Kelly, who recorded one out, then yielded a walk-off grand slam to Mark Teixeira.

The Yankees celebrated wildly on the field, while the Red Sox trudged into the dugout, beset with mixed emotions.

Yes, they had just lost a game that seemed theirs. But they also had accomplished something that had taken 158 games.

What to do?

The Sox decided to drown their temporary sorrows in champagne.

"As soon as we got in here,'' said Jackie Bradley Jr., "we quickly got over it.''

From the top of the eighth until the start of the bottom of the ninth, the Red Sox seemed headed in a conventional celebration.

A two-run, bases-loaded double by Mookie Betts and a wild pitch -- the latter enabling David Ortiz to slide into home and dislodge the ball from former teammate Tommy Layne's glove --- had given the Sox a 3-0 lead.

Koji Uehara worked around a walk to post a scoreless walk and after the top of the ninth, the Sox called on Craig Kimbrel, who had successfully closed out all but two save opportunities all season.

But Kimbrel quickly allowed a leadoff single to Brett Gardner and then began pitching as though he forgot how to throw strikes. Three straight walks resulted in a run in and the bases loaded.

Joe Kelly got an out, but then Teixeira, for the second time this week, produced a game-winning homer in the ninth. On Monday, he had homered in Toronto to turn a Blue Jays win into a loss, and now, here he was again.

It may have been a rather meaningless victory for the Yankees -- who remain barely alive for the wild card -- but it did prevent them the indignity of watching the Red Sox celebrate on their lawn.

Instead, the Sox wore the shame of the walk-off -- at least until they reached their clubhouse, where the partying began in earnest.

It had taken clubhouse attendants less than five minutes to cover the floor and lockers with plastic protective sheets. In a matter of a few more minutes, the air was filled with a mix of beer and bubbly.

President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski wore a goggles and only socks on his feet.

As the spray reached every inch of the clubhouse, David Ortiz exclaimed: "I'm going to drown in this man.''

Defeat? What defeat?

 

McAdam: Seeds of first place Red Sox planted in A.L. East basement

McAdam: Seeds of first place Red Sox planted in A.L. East basement

NEW YORK -- Worst to first.

Again.

Sound familiar?

It should, since the Red Sox are now making this a habit. For the second time in the last four years, the Red Sox have rebounded from a last-place finish -- two, in fact, in this instance -- to claim a division title.

On Wednesday, they won it the hard way -- by losing the game, 5-3, on a walk-off grand slam by the New York Yankees' Mark Teixeira, but clinching first thanks to a loss by the second-place Toronto Blue Jays.

It's as though the Red Sox were determined to win it on a trick bank shot. They had already won the A.L. East more conventionally in 2013, by actually winning their clinching game. But the awkwardness of blowing a three-run lead in the ninth was soon washed away in a spray of champagne and beer in a raucous clubhouse.

"One inning,'' declared John Farrell, "should not take away from the fact that we're champions.''

Indeed, the Red Sox had already paid the price to get to this point with two consecutive finishes in the division basement. They had to wait for their young foundation to mature and evolve.

Mookie Betts went from being a good, promising player to a legitimate MVP candidate. Jackie Bradley Jr. transformed from defensive marvel and streaky hitter to solid, all-around All-Star. Xander Bogaerts continued to improve and finally checked the "power'' box.

"I don't know what expectations we had coming in,'' confessed Bradley. "You just know that as long as you play hard, do the right things, keep together. . . We knew we had a talented team, but you still have to play the game. We were able to play the game at a high level this year.

"I think we knew this could happen in spring training, that we could be a pretty special team.''

By this year, the growing pains were over. The young stars had arrived and were ready to not just flash potential, but this time, do something with it.

"Everything came to fruition,'' noted Bradley, "and we're here.''

Along with the expected developments, there were surprises: Sandy Leon went from fourth-string journeyman to starting catcher, unseating several teammates along the way. Steven Wright went from bullpen long man to All-Star starter. Andrew Benintendi came from nowhere to claim the left field job in the final two months.

Some of this was planned. The rest -- and this is the beauty of sports -- was not.

"We had two rough years," said Farrell. "But at the same time, it was true meaning in the struggles. We're benefitting from that now.,''

The team showed a powerful finishing kick down the stretch, obliterating anything and anyone in its way in the final month, winning 11 straight, including seven in a row on the road -- all against division opponents.

The road-heavy second-half schedule that threatened to derail them instead toughened them and served as a springboard.

Comparisons will be made, of course, to the last two championship teams - 2004 stands alone for obvious reasons. Farrell was the pitching coach for one (2007) and the manager of another (2013).

"This is a more dynamic offense than those other teams,'' said Farrell. "We've got more team speed, we've got more athleticism. I can't say that this is a better team; it's different.''

"Better'' may have to wait until November, and the end of the postseason. It will require a World Series victory to match 2007 and 2013.

Time will tell. But for a night, there was enough to celebrate.

"By no means,'' said Farrell, dripping in champagne, "is this the end. This is just the beginning of our postseason.''