With eight games left, it is a pitching staff that features startling uncertainty.
Yes, the Red Sox salvaged a double header split against the lowly Orioles on Monday. But while they won one (and perhaps could have swept but for what the Sox suggested vehemently to be a blown call in the first game) the most striking common denominator of the two games was the fact that there are questions about the fitness of several Sox pitchers for their roles.
That sentiment was most pronounced in the first game, when rookie Kyle Weiland got off to a brilliant start (four strikeouts through two shutout innings) before fading quickly. He allowed six runs in 4 2/3 innings of work, and in all but one of his five big league starts, he’s failed to complete even five innings.
“I believe in myself. Obviously they trust me to go out there and give them a chance to win,” said Weiland. “It’s really frustrating that I haven’t kept it within range and gotten us deeper into games and given us a better chance.
“It’s really frustrating because you know it’s there. You know you have the capability to work deep in games, you have the pitches to start,” added Weiland. “It’s just piecing it all together and trusting it. Obviously I trust it early in games and get on a roll, but you have to stay aggressive. I’ve got to stay aggressively, basically, throughout the game. It can’t just be a one, two-inning thing.”
Of course, the fact that Weiland has been so effective in his first time through a batting order in three of his four September appearances comes with an obvious curiosity. Particularly given that he is at a point where he’s pitched 23 2/3 innings more than he did in 2010, it is natural to wonder – as some are in the Sox organization – whether he might be more helpful down the stretch in the bullpen.
That is not necessarily to suggest that his long-term future would be as a reliever (though it could be). But right now, Weiland (0-3, 7.99 ERA, 11 strikeouts and 12 walks in 23 2/3 innings) has been performing like a multi-innings reliever who is slightly miscast and who is thus getting burned his second time through an order.
At the same time, the opposite question was being asked about one of the pitchers who worked in relief of Weiland. Alfredo Aceves turned in three shutout innings, at one point working out of a second-and-third, no-out jam without permitting a run. It was his 12th relief appearance of three or more innings, and his seventh of that duration in which he hadn’t allowed a run.
Aceves (9-2, 2.74 ERA) has shown the ability to turn over a lineup while still recording outs. His pitch mix is such that the right-hander appears like he might have considerable value as a member of the rotation, something that was not lost on his teammates.
"To be honest with you, the way things are going, [Aceves] should be starting. Simple as that. Give it a shot," Ortiz said to a small group of reporters. "He’s got good stuff, man. You see how easy he gets hitters out. I think at one point, he might be a starter. I don’t know. It all depends on what our front office decides. He’s got good stuff, man. And we definitely need a guy who can come in and give us six or seven good innings. It seems like he’s capable of doing it. We’ll see."
Ortiz was asked whether there is enough time left in the season to have Aceves change roles.
"We still have like what 10 games? Nine games? You never know. It’s not going to be tomorrow. He threw (53) today. But he’s got electric stuff," said Ortiz. "And we’ve been saying that for a while, right?"
Yet the Sox are leery of removing their most versatile reliever from a role in which he’s been brilliant and in which he is making a huge impact on his team. Aceves is 8-1 with a 2.14 relief ERA, and his 84 bullpen innings (accumulated despite the fact that he spent part of the year in Triple-A and part of the year in the rotation) are the second most of any AL pitcher.
If the Sox were certain that they could move Aceves to the rotation and have a viable replacement in the bullpen – a group that has also struggled – then it would be tempting to give Aceves (who was 1-1 with a 5.14 ERA in four starts) another crack at the rotation.
But as it stands, with the Sox struggling to get five innings out of their starters (a fairly low bar that the Sox have nevertheless exceeded just six times in 19 games this month), Aceves’ value in his current role is immense. He is the most reliable setup man the team has in front of Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. He is also a pitcher who can serve, in some ways, as a piggyback starter to keep the Sox in the game if a Sox starter gets knocked out early.
In other words, Aceves has significant potential value in multiple roles on any day on which he can pitch. The Sox remain reluctant to thus experiment with removing him from the bullpen, a move that in a best-case scenario would be robbing Peter to pay Paul, and in a worst-case scenario could leave the Sox without one of their most critical relievers so that he could continue to be just so-so as a starter.
The questions began with Aceves and Weiland, but they certainly didn’t end there. Indeed, the man who started the second game of the doubleheader seemed to have nothing but questions for himself after his outing. On a night when the Sox scored 18 runs in the nightcap, John Lackey still couldn’t claim the win. He was knocked out after 4 1/3 innings, a brief outing that nonetheless required him to throw 105 pitches during which he allowed eight runs.
Lackey could not explain his night, suggesting that his stuff felt great in the bullpen but did not translate at all to the game.
“I can’t explain it, man. That’s the best I’ve felt in the bullpen warming up all year. I don’t know what the hell happened,” said Lackey. “I’m glad we won, for sure. Obviously. But I’m pretty frustrated. I don’t know what to tell you.”
Such statements are hardly confidence-inducing for the Sox from the man who would be a Game 3 or Game 4 starter should the team hold on to its wild card lead (now two games) to make the playoffs. Nor is Lackey’s 6.49 ERA – a mark that is steaming towards the title of worst in franchise history, and the worst by any pitcher (min. 150 innings) in the majors in six years – the sort of mark that can leave the Sox with anything but a sense of uneasiness when he takes the mound.
That, in turn, makes Erik Bedard’s return on Tuesday all the more significant. Yet the left-hander will himself remain a question mark going forward, given that he will have to rebuild arm strength after missing the past two weeks with a sore knee and then a mild lat strain. The Sox acknowledge that Bedard is unlikely to be able to throw as many as 100 pitches on Tuesday.
Similarly, as Clay Buchholz works his way back to games, his potential contributions remain impossible to predict. If he is healthy enough to pitch, then the Sox will be putting him into a relief role in which he has no real prior experience, at a time when it is almost impossible to know – after not having pitched in games in more than three months – how sharp his stuff will be.
And finally, the Sox are left to wonder whether any number of their struggling pitchers can correct course and become reliable. Daniel Bard rebounded on Friday from losses in three straight games to deliver a scoreless inning. Matt Albers, who struck out both Orioles he faced on Monday, has shown some glimpses in his last two outings of being able to regain his footing after slipping on a banana peel at the start of August.
But Dan Wheeler has now been sidelined for almost two weeks while dealing with forearm stiffness that had rendered him ineffective in the month of September. And other Sox relievers, including Franklin Morales, Felix Doubront, Michael Bowden and a host of others for whom September represents an open casting call for potential spots on the playoff roster, have yet to demonstrate the consistency needed to claim a fixed role.
All of that has contributed to a Sox staff that will feature more question marks than certainties going forward. The situation feels reminiscent of the 2005 Sox, a team that barely wheezed into the playoffs after nearly seeing a comfortable spot in the postseason chase evaporate in September. That club, too, featured questions of effectiveness and health through the season’s final days, leading to a day-to-day sense of unpredictability.
Of course, that club reached the playoffs but was promptly swept out of them by a White Sox club with superior pitching. Whether this Sox team follows a similar trajectory remains to be seen, but clearly, this is a team that faces a startling number of questions at a time when the pitching staff should have long since taken shape.