By Sean McAdam
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.