NEW YORK -- It's bigger-picture time.
Clay Buchholz is coming back, and the Red Sox have a plan. The team is not merely targeting a way to get through the rest of the regular season. Now, with the return of the man who was the best pitcher in baseball through the first two-plus months of the season, it's time to put the rotation in the best possible position to make a run at a World Series.
The Sox remain too close to the meltdown of 2011 to take for granted their entry into October, even if they've pulled away in their division like Secretariat and have forged a way to earn a (gasp) 100 percent likelihood of reaching the postseason and a 99.5 percent chance of a division title, according to the playoff projections of Baseball Prospectus.
Despite those stacked odds, the Sox do not presume a fait accompli.
That said, they also are not blind to the reality of what's staring them in the face. And so, they recognize that these next 17 games represent an opportunity to lay the groundwork for the postseason.
That starts, of course, with the return of Buchholz.
"As of right now, I hopefully have four starts left in the season. That's for us to keep winning and get ready for the starts in October. That's when everything really matters," said Buchholz. "We've got to get there first. But I want to make sure I'm ready for that. That's the only goal I have in my head right now, is to be ready."
But the Sox aren't just grooming Buchholz for the postseason dance. The team is likewise preparing the rest of its staff for baseball next month.
The re-entry of Buchholz into the rotation in Tampa Bay, with Felix Doubront getting skipped for a turn, represents a starting point. But it's only part of the larger plan being hatched for the final 20 days, which are being used as a springboard to next month. While Doubront will enjoy a breather -- something the left-hander acknowledged could prove valuable as he tries to restore his mechanics -- he won't be alone in doing so.
"It's going to be interesting now down the stretch. We're looking into, right now, how to give guys a start here, a start there, especially early in September, so we can be really fresh, hopefully, by the end of September, and it will hopefully take us into where we want to go," said pitching coach Juan Nieves. "For a long time we were grinding through five [starters]. We missed Buchholz a lot. I think the guys have really stepped it up.
"The luxury of having the depth we have now, it almost brings it full circle, and now we can give guys a little bit of a recharge -- I don't call it days off. Doubront, [John] Lackey, [Jon] Lester -- not so much Buchholz -- and [Jake] Peavy, we can hopefully give them a little bit of a recharge so they can recharge their batteries, because hopefully we're playing into deep, deep, deep October."
The team had the depth to withstand the loss of Buchholz, getting strong fill-in performances from Alfredo Aceves and Brandon Workman before the trade deadline acquisition of Peavy. Even without their best pitcher in the season's first two months, the Red Sox did not falter.
The Sox owned a 38-25 (.603) record and 1 1/2 game lead in the AL East when Buchholz went down. The team has a 49-33 mark (.598) in his absence, with its divisional lead ballooning to 7 1/2 games.
And now, that same depth is permitting the team to bring its starting situation, in the words of Nieves, "full circle," so that the team can best position itself for what lies beyond the regular season. It is a testament to the fact that, at a time when teams are often in a position where they are scrambling for innings, the Sox now actually enjoy six rotation options with whom they are comfortable, and can thus manage the workloads of the group.
"I can't remember a time when [the rotation has] been capable of what the five guys who are going out every five days are capable of doing," Buchholz said of the depth of the current rotation. "We're in a good spot.
"Obviously I don't need any more rest -- I want to throw every five days -- and hopefully we're fortunate enough to pitch in October," he added. "But rest at this point is good for anybody. Each week between now and the end of the season, different guys are going to get rest."
That raises the possibility of putting the members of the staff back in the best position to succeed, something that, in turn, could bode well for the team going forward. Already, the team's starters have proven a source of consistent strength throughout the year.
Even without Buchholz, the other primary starters have made virtually all of their starts since Lackey's brief stint on the DL in April, with strong performances characterizing their work.
The Sox have the fourth-best ERA of any starting rotation in the AL (3.94, behind the Tigers (3.53), A's (3.79) and Rays (3.92)) while ranking fourth in baseball and second in the AL in quality starts (84). The team leads the AL in most starts of three runs permitted or fewer (108, with a 71-37 record in those games) and in outings of two or fewer runs (82, in which the team is 57-25).
Those performances suggest that, as a group, the starters have given the Sox plenty of opportunities to win, particularly given an offense that has surged to the American League lead in runs scored. But more recently, the team has enjoyed an even more impressive stretch of rotation excellence.
Aug. 19, the start of the team's road trip to the West Coast, represents the point of departure for the stretch in which the Sox have pulled away from the division. They've gone 14-5 and won six straight series. The rotation has led the surge.
Some highlights of the rotation's work over the period that commenced in San Francisco and ran through Saturday's game:
-- Averaging a major league-best 6 2/3 innings per night
-- Possessing an AL-best 1.092 WHIP
-- Holding opponents to a .220 average and .277 OBP, both lowest in the majors, along with a .346 slugging mark that is lowest in the AL and second lowest in the majors
-- Punching out 2.6 batters per walk issued, third-best in the AL
-- Owning a 3.63 ERA (fourth best in the AL, behind only the Angels (3.01), Indians (3.03) and Athletics (3.36)
Those numbers don't include what Lester did on Sunday (in the Sox' 4-3 walkoff loss to the Yankees), firing eight innings in which he was touched for an opportunistic three runs on 10 hits while punching out six and walking one. The line doesn't do justice to Lester's stuff, at a time when he showed a powerful, mid-90s fastball and a nasty swing-and-miss changeup against which right-handers were helpless and the continued reemergence of a killer cutter.
If this wasn't quite vintage Lester, it was a close enough facsimile for the Sox to imagine what they had at the start of the year -- chiefly, two pitchers in Buchholz and Lester who look more than capable of anchoring a run through October. Of course, that ceiling isn't a given considering that Buchholz remains an unknown and that Lester did endure a considerable midyear struggle.
Nonetheless, Lester's tale of three seasons reveals a pitcher who is capable of dominating:
First 9 starts: 6 2/3 IP per start, 6-0, 2.72 ERA, 7.5 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9
Next 11 starts: 6 IP per start, 2-6, 6.27 ERA, 7.2 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9
Last 10 starts: 6 2/3 IP per start, 5-3, 2.53 ERA, 7.6 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9
In this case, Lester has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the game in two separate significant stretches and one of the worst in a similarly significant stretch. As October nears, it's been the good Lester -- the one who minimizes walks and locates to minimize hard contact -- in view.
"He's been pretty good since February. A couple of bumps in the road, like everybody else has, but I think, what an incredible year he's had, coming back from last year, from what I've been told," said Nieves. "His changeup has become a swing-and-miss pitch. The curveball is always there. The cutter has gotten better. And he's a workhorse. He's elite. Name the lefties in the league, and I think he's among the best."
Lackey, meanwhile, recently suggested that he's pitching as well as he ever has, and aside from a terribly misleading 9-12 record, his performance appears to bear out the notion that he is performing to a level that approximates his career peak, when he was the unquestioned anchor of the Angels rotation.
Lackey's 3.48 ERA is considerably better than his Angels career yield of 3.81. His 7.8 strikeouts per nine inning represent the third best mark of his career. He's walking the fewest batters (2.0 per nine innings) of his career. His ERA+ (ERA compared to the league average, taking into account the parks where he's pitching) is 120 -- meaning he's 20 percent better than league average, better than his Halos average of 116.
And then there is Peavy. The wildly competitive right-hander has been just about what the Sox hoped for when dealing for him at a cost of Jose Iglesias, compiling a 3.55 ERA in his seven starts since the trade with five outings in which he's pitched into the seventh. As of this moment in time (subject to change), he represents the Sox' fourth starter (when/if needed) in the playoffs.
One through four, that's a fairly compelling group, one with which the Red Sox would gladly take their chances against just about any other potential postseason foe -- so long as the group is performing at something close to its full capabilities.
And now, thanks to its comfortable perch in the AL East, the Sox are in position to give themselves the best chance of doing just that. It is time for the Sox to start charting their course for October.