What is the current state of the Red Sox rotation?
On Sunday, the Sox will be in Yankee Stadium, likely fighting for their playoff lives. While the team hadn’t decided on a starter for the contest as of Tuesday afternoon, the Sox had narrowed down the choice to one of two candidates: The guy with the worst ERA in team history (John Lackey), or another member of the rotation (Erik Bedard) who lasted all of 2 2/3 innings on Tuesday in his first start in more than two weeks.
This is life for the Red Sox in September 2011. Bedard, in his return from a sore knee and mild lat strain, was going to be limited on Tuesday night in his first start since Sept. 3. Still, it was thought that the veteran would start to swing the pendulum in favor of rotation stability.
Instead, Bedard turned in an outing that ranked among the briefest of the month. The Sox could not have anticipated that a 51-pitch third inning, which included 18 pitches after a two-out error by Josh Reddick, would end the left-hander’s night after just eight outs.
Even so, as unpredictable as that outcome was, the Sox are amidst a stretch in which Bedard’s hasty exit seemed anything but shocking.
In 20 games this month, the Red Sox have a 5-15 record. Not coincidentally, they have received just three quality starts in September. The have as many starts in which a rotation member failed to finish the fourth inning (5) as they do outings of six or more innings. The next pitcher to record an out in the eighth inning will be the first to do so in September for the Sox.
Yes, Jonathan Papelbon took complete responsibility for the Red Sox’ latest defeat on a night when the Red Sox suffered a 7-5 loss to the last-place Orioles. But the Red Sox continued a startling pattern of games in which they have typically had to try to win in spite of acts of sabotage by the team’s starters.
Sox starters this month now have a 6.77 ERA in just 93 innings pitched – an average of just under 4 2/3 innings per game. That, in turn, has left the bullpen (armed with a 5.13 ERA that can best be described as “adequate only by comparison”) to absorb a startling 86 innings, an average of roughly 13 outs per night. Thus it was that the Sox had little choice but to try to get nine outs from the game-ending duo of Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. On another night, those two would not have been asked to absorb such a workload, but Alfredo Aceves was unavailable because he’d logged three shutout innings in relief of Kyle Weiland one day earlier, on a day when the rookie lasted just 4 2/3 innings in the first game of a double header.
Aside from one outing by Josh Beckett against the Rays last Friday, the Sox rotation has been unable to put the team in position to win without an enormous offensive output. The Sox now have a 4-0 record in September when scoring 12 or more runs…and a 1-15 record otherwise.
The Sox are understandably trying to grasp any hints of silver linings that they can find. Thus it was that Bedard’s outing was declared not a disaster, but instead a solid performance following a layoff, and an outing that was derailed in no small part by the Josh Reddick error that led to three unearned runs and 18 bonus pitches, and ultimately hastened the starter’s exit in the third.
“I thought he was OK. A 50-pitch inning is very difficult,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “He knows how to pitch. Again, it’s a little hard, you know, I actually thought he was doing pretty well, but then that inning got so long. The hope would have been that it’s over.”
Bedard’s velocity was back to its pre-injury levels, as he was working with an 88-93 mph fastball (a pitch that averaged 90 mph), and he was able to flip curveballs in the strike zone at will. He also emerged proclaiming both his knee and lat to be feeling fine.
Still, he was anything but overpowering. For the first time in 164 career starts, Bedard failed to record a strikeout. Just one of his 76 pitches elicited a swing and miss. While there was little hard contact against him, there were 18 foul balls, resulting in a pitch count that had already elevated in the third inning even before Reddick’s error.
Moreover, after the error, Bedard walked two straight hitters to load the bases. He then rallied to get ahead of Mark Reynolds with an 0-2 count, but after a foul ball, he let the Orioles third baseman back in the count with three straight balls before leaving a full-count curveball up in the zone. Reynolds whacked the pitch through the left side of the infield for two runs, ending Bedard’s day.
“People make errors, and it’s part of the game. You just try to limit the damage,” said Bedard. “As a pitcher, that’s all you’re thinking of
It remains to be seen whether the situation improves any time soon. Certainly, there is plenty of uncertainty looming over the weekend in the Bronx, particularly in the series finale on Sunday.
Before Bedard’s start, Francona said that the Sox were deciding between having John Lackey – currently burdened with a 6.49 ERA that ithe worst in Red Sox history by a pitcher after at least 20 starts – pitch on five days’ rest or to ask Bedard to come back and start on four days’ rest (thus bumping Lackey to a Monday start in Baltimore on six days’ rest).
Right now, there is little reason to view either pitcher as a reliable option in such a situation, or, for that matter, going forward into a potential postseason scenario. That could change, of course – Bedard was lit up at the end of July in his return from a month-long layoff, then went on (after being traded by the Sox) to deliver solid starts in each of his next six outings. Lackey, meanwhile, did manage to outduel CC Sabathia at one point this summer.
All the same, the Sox are left to continue their search for stability in their rotation. It is not merely the starters who have aided this September swoon – the Sox offense has been wildly inconsistent, the defense has been terrible and the bullpen has endured six losses, with Bard absorbing four of those defeats.
But the longer the rotation remains stuck in quicksand, the greater the danger that the Sox could sink.
“If we had the answer, we’d be doing something,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “But as far as I’m concerned, we have to go out there as a team, we have to play as a team – nine innings, 27 outs. We’ve got to do that together.”
But while all facets of the club can claim some degree of culpability, it seems almost impossible to imagine reversal of fortune for the Sox unless they can get their rotation back in order. And right now, the choices that they face suggest there are few signs of that happening.