NEW YORK – For the Red Sox, the season increasingly represents a race against time.
That is a characterization that typically holds for a team that is trying to catch up in a playoff race, rather than for a team that holds a 2½ game lead in the wild card race, with a magic number of four and six games remaining. Yet even as the Sox occupy the lead spot in the wild card race, as the season winds down, they remain a startlingly unfinished product.
It remains unclear to what degree that will change between now and – should they punch their passage to October – the playoffs. That is true of both the team as a whole and some of its members. A great deal of uncertainty looms about both who will be available for the Sox as October arrives and what kind of performances can be expected from those players.
A breakdown of those components:
JOHN LACKEY AND ERIK BEDARD
The reluctance with which the Sox approached the idea of having John Lackey start on Sunday in Yankee Stadium was eye-opening.
Sunday would represent Lackey’s normal turn, and he would be pitching on five days’ rest. He was signed to a five-year, $82.5 million deal after the 2009 season precisely because the Sox wanted to add a pitcher who had a long history of success in such spotlight moments.
But almost two years and a 5.27 ERA (6.49 this year – on the threshold of becoming the worst in Red Sox history) later, the Sox are treating Lackey as little more than the best of a number of undesirable options.
Until he struggled in his first start in more than two weeks, the Sox toyed with the idea of having left-hander Erik Bedard make the start in New York on four days’ rest. The team considered giving the start to Alfredo Aceves, but manager Terry Francona felt that the team benefited more from having the versatile Aceves available as a bullpen option, where he’s been extremely valuable throughout the year. The Sox explored trades for pitchers outside the organization, but could not find a viable option.
And so, the team will turn to Lackey in what could be a game of tremendous significance. Yet the pitcher whom they will send to the mound is not the same one whom they signed, but instead some pale imitation thereof.
“If we could pinpoint a reason [for Lackey’s struggles], we would have addressed it by now,” said Sox GM Theo Epstein. “It’s a number of factors. It’s very difficult to explain. He’s got a much better track record than this. We have to spend a lot of time trying to get him back to what he was.”
Lackey did reassert himself once earlier in the season, during a stretch in July and into early August in which he flashed signs of a power arsenal that looked more like what he had as a member of the Angels. But that form has not been evident in the last month or so. If the switch is to flip – and if Lackey is to reassert himself as something more than an option of last resort who may be in danger of losing a spot in the postseason rotation – the turnaround must come quickly.
The same is true of Bedard, who followed 16 days on the shelf due to a knee and then lat injury with a 2 2/3 inning dud in which he failed to strike out a batter for the first time of his career as a starter. If Bedard can look like the pitcher who had a 3.66 ERA and struck out a batter an inning in his first six starts for the Sox, then the Sox will be in a position where they have a viable No. 3 starter for the postseason. If he struggles through another outing, however, then the Sox will have little reason to feel optimistic about the depth of their rotation entering in a potential postseason scenario.
In theory, Clay Buchholz could be a difference-maker – perhaps in the season’s final days, perhaps in the postseason. On a staff that is desperate for reinforcements, his potentially dominating stuff would seem a welcome and potentially significant addition.
In practice, there is so little time for him to prepare for such a job as a reliever that the right-hander is admittedly cautious about whether he can do so.
“If we had three weeks left in the season then I wouldn’t have any problem with it because I’d have time to get ready,” said Buchholz. “Now that we’re down to a week left, and we need to win, coming out of a bullpen which I’ve only done once or twice in my career and that was three, four years ago, the routine’s going to be different. As much as I want it to be the same, it would be different.”
Buchholz’ status might be a slightly less significant issue but for one relatively overlooked – but fairly significant – change to the structure of the bullpen.
From May through early September, Dan Wheeler had emerged as precisely the kind of reliever the Sox envisioned when they signed him. After a rocky start in Boston, the right-hander enjoyed a 33-game stretch in which he had a 1.53 ERA and held opponents to a .175 average and .496 OPS.
For the most part, he was not being asked to assume the Sox’ most significant relief innings. Indeed, he was rarely pitching in close games in which the Sox held the lead.
However, his job as a pitcher who was asked to hold an opponent at bay for an inning or two in a contest in which the Sox trailed by a couple of runs was meaningful. First, his ability to keep opposing lineups in check gave the Sox lineup an opportunity to come back. Secondly, his ability to lay claim to such a role represented an important part in defining the bullpen structure.
However, in early September, he started to experience forearm stiffness. He tried to pitch through it, but ended up runs in three consecutive appearances before the Sox shut him down after a Sept. 7 appearance in which he suffered a loss in extra innings.
The consequence of his absence became clear earlier this week. On Monday, in the first game of a double header, Alfredo Aceves was brought into a game that the Sox trailed. He pitched three shutout innings, yet his efforts were wasted, as the Sox proved unable to come back. Aceves was burned in the loss.
The next night, with Aceves unavailable, the Sox tried to get nine outs from Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. That plan failed, with Bard allowing a pair of singles and Papelbon suffering his first blown save since May.
Now, the season has just five days left, and Wheeler has yet to throw a bullpen session since being shut down. He reports steady progress, but cannot predict when – or whether – he will be able to pitch again in a game.
“I’m making a lot of progress. I just want to make sure everything is right in there. It’s been one of those things where I feel good, but am trying to keep it going,” said Wheeler. “I’m hoping [to pitch in a regular season game]. It’s tough to say. We’re pushing as fast as we can because of the time of year with the season coming to an end. I want to be ready to go. We’ll see. Keeping my fingers crossed. I wish I was out there. It sucks not being out there. This is the time I want to do it.”
J.D. DREW AND KEVIN YOUKILIS
Drew has been out since late July with a succession of ailments – beginning with a shoulder impingement, then moving to a finger issue then moving to a stiff neck – but he may be getting close to playing in games. He hit indoors on Friday, and while manager Terry Francona cautioned that Drew still has been limited in his activities, he did not dismiss the idea of activating the outfielder soon.
But towards what end? It would be almost impossible to say. On the one hand, in 2008, Drew missed all but two of the Sox’ final 38 games, but rebounded with a clutch postseason that included a pair of huge homers as well as a walkoff hit.
On the other hand, whether because of age (Drew is 35) or injuries, Drew was amidst the worst year of his career when he landed on the DL. He is hitting .219 with a .317 OBP and .305 slugging mark this year, marks that made him one of the least productive outfielders in the game.
If he can come back, the Sox would welcome it. But his role and potential contribution remains a question.
The same is true of Kevin Youkilis, whose 2011 season is offering shades of Mike Lowell’s 2008. The third baseman is trying to work his way back from a sports hernia and bursitis in his hip. The Sox are checking on him on a daily basis to determine what kinds of activities he can tolerate (on Friday, that consisted of hitting off a tee and taking flips).
But it remains uncertain whether the 32-year-old will play again this year, and if he does, whether he can come close to being the middle-of-the-order threat who has been such a valuable lineup contributor to the Sox for the last several years.
THE RED SOX
They are 5-16 in the month of September, better only than a Minnesota Twins team that possesses the worst record in the American League. Their record is an adequate reflection of their play, with holes emerging everywhere – in a rotation that has featured both poor health and poor performances by those who are healthy, in a bullpen that has been overtaxed but that has also failed at critical junctures, in a defense that went from elite to porous, in a lineup that went from relentlessly deep to top-heavy.
The causes of the team’s failure are far-reaching. But ultimately, the exercise in identifying those causes is far less significant than leaving those struggles behind.
In the middle of June, the challenge would represent something of an academic exercise. Now, it has become a matter that will determine whether the Sox’ season will come to an abrupt and imminent halt.
“It’s on us to turn this thing around. We don’t have any excuses. We don’t have an excuse in the world,” said Sox GM Theo Epstein. “It’s time to step up and show what we’re made of.
“This is a stretch of disappointing play and we own that. We can’t run away from that. It’s certainly not too late. We’re fortunate in a sense that we can wake up and play one good week of baseball and then have a great opportunity in the postseason. It’s time to do it though. …
“We had a rough April,” he added, alluding to the team’s 2-10 start. “And we played, whatever it was, close to .700 ball for four months and now we’re having a real rough September. It’s in there. We’ve pulled ourselves out of this before. We just have to do it in a hurry.”
For the Sox, there is – almost literally – not time like the present. A baseball season that is defined by its amazing duration has now been reduced to a narrow, closing window. Depending on what happens, the team could follow drastically different courses.
If there is no change, the Sox will soon arrive at the end of their season – whether by the end of the regular season or with a quick egress from the first round of the postseason. If they enact a quick about-face, however, then a team that has looked flat for three weeks may suddenly look like a far more formidable group.
“Everyone gets knocked on their ass sooner or later. It’s what happens afterwards that matters. We have an opportunity to go do something,” said Epstein. “I will say this. Win a game or two in a row here, I do think this team could feel unburdened a little bit and get dangerous in a hurry. It starts with winning one game.”