The Red Sox suffered through what seemed like one of their more dismal days of the season on Tuesday. Tim Wakefield landed on the disabled list, the offense sputtered in Texas and at the end of the day, following a fourth straight loss, the Sox had been bounced from first place in the American League East for the first time since June 8. This surely wasn’t the healthy burst from the gates that the team fancied for the second half.
“Frustrating games,” Sox owner John Henry suggested via his Twitter account.
Even so, the gloom of the Red Sox’ predicament following a 4-2 loss in Texas (recap here) was easily exaggerated. Teams are supposed to endure struggles along the lines of what the Red Sox are currently experiencing.
Over the course of an unrelenting 162-game calendar, teams are expected to suffer four-game losing streaks. The Sox dealt with three such bumps in the 2007 season, en route to a World Series.
Entering yesterday, the Sox were one of the final three holdouts in baseball not to have experienced a four-game skid. Now, the Dodgers and Angels stand alone in that distinction. In all likelihood, those two teams will join their baseball brethren sometime between now and October.
Nonetheless, while the Sox’ current skid qualifies as part of the normal rhythm of the season, the team does not have the luxury of suffering through much worse. Under normal circumstances, Boston’s performance to date would have afforded it a cushion in the division. The team is 55-38 and on pace for 96 wins, a number that almost always is sufficient to secure a playoff berth.
But the preseason predictions of the brutal American League East appear to be coming to fruition. The Yankees (who earlier this year went through separate four- and five-game losing streaks) have won all five of their second-half games to roar past the Sox and into first place in the A.L. East.
The Rays (who have also gone through four- and five-game slides), meanwhile, are now 27-14 since the beginning of June. They have the best record in the division in that time, and have charged along the rail to come within 4.5 games of the Yankees and 3.5 games of the Sox.
The Red Sox may not be at the limit of the kind of slump they can afford, but they are certainly near it. The proverbial blink of an eye is long enough for a team in the A.L. East to find itself having tumbled from first to third.
The Sox’ roster depth – and especially pitching depth – was forged that reality in mind.
“On a yearly basis, we feel it’s important to build a pitching staff deep enough to endure the grind of the American League East,” Sox Assistant G.M. Ben Cherington said back in April. “We know there’s going to be a couple parts of each season, a couple different 10 or 15 game stretches, where either we won’t get quite what we expected from our starters or we’ll have injuries, or for whatever reason we have to rely on depth from Pawtucket or Portland to get us through those stretches.
“That’s become really important in the A.L. East. If you can get through those stretches being competitive or even playing .500 baseball, you have a chance. If you go 5-15 or win three out of 15 or something like that, that’s a pretty good recipe for missing out on the playoffs in our division.”
Clearly, after just a four-game blip, the Sox are now confronted by a degree of urgency that would likely not exist in any other division. Here are four other lessons from Tuesday:
THE VALUE OF THE RED SOX’ PITCHING DEPTH IS NOW BECOMING EVIDENT
There is little question that the Red Sox will miss Tim Wakefield. He is, after all, tied for the A.L. lead in wins with 11, and has delivered a tidy 11-3, 4.31 season that earned him his first All-Star bid. Over the first half, he was the Sox’ most consistent pitcher.
Even so, for now, the knuckleballer’s injury appears to be setting off few alarms. The Sox described the issue as a lower back strain. Wakefield told reporters that the injury was a big spasm that occurred on Saturday and failed to get better in timely fashion.
Even so, Wakefield told reporters that the issue represented “just a minor setback,” and that he expected to miss no more than two or three starts. That offered the Sox some reassurance about the state of their team. So, too, does the identity of the pitcher who will replace Wakefield in the rotation.
Clay Buchholz’ presence in the organization is of potentially enormous significance to the Sox for both the short- and long-term. Buchholz, who allowed one run on just four hits in his lone major-league start of the season on Friday, gives the Sox a pitcher with obviously immense talent. His outing last week reinforced the notion that he is major-league ready right now, and that he is capable of being – at the least – a placeholder for the Sox until Wakefield’s return.
But for Buchholz (and Michael Bowden, who has a 3.13 ERA in Triple-A this year), the Sox might be in a position where they had to overpay to acquire another starter in a trade. Teams that make midseason moves along those lines typically have to pay an enormous premium in prospects, something that ultimately weakens the foundation of clubs for the long-term.
“The goal is to acquire as much potential impact pitching as possible by any means possible,” Cherington said earlier this year. “The reality is acquiring potential impact pitching through major-league trades or free agency can be pretty prohibitive.”
That is a dilemma that the Sox do not currently face. For now, the team can make do with internal solutions. The presence of Buchholz could sustain the Sox’ chances through a short-term period of adversity and at the same time help the team to keep intact its talent pool for the long haul.
THE A.L. EAST IS A BEAST, BUT THE WEST IS NO PUSHOVER
Were the Sox in the A.L. West, they would have the best record in that division, at least in theory. In practice, however, one can only wonder how the Sox might match up if they played all of their games against the Rangers, Angels, Mariners and Athletics.
All four teams in the A.L. West have winning records against their counterparts on the opposite coast: the Angels are 17-9 against the A.L. East, the Rangers are 15-12, the Mariners 12-9 and even the last place A’s are 14-13.
The Sox, meanwhile, have an abysmal 8-15 record against A.L. West teams. The team still has 11 games left on its schedule against teams in the division: four against the Rangers, four against the A’s and three against the Angels.
The silver lining for Boston? The Sox still have a whopping 19 games against the A.L. Central, clearly the inferior division in the American League this year. The Sox are 13-5 against their Central counterparts. The Yankees have 10 games left against the Central (against whom they are 19-5), while the Rays (14-12 vs. the Central) have 13 remaining contests against Heartland teams.
THE OFFENSE REMAINS IN A SEVERE RUT
It’s only been five games…but what a brutal five games.
Since the start of the second half, the Sox have scored just 12 runs, or 2.4 per game. That nightly output is 26th among the 30 major-league clubs, and second-to-last among the 14 teams in the A.L. The team is dead last in the majors in average (.194), 29th (and worst in the A.L.) in OBP (.257) and 27th in slugging (.288).
“We’ve hit a spot where we’re not swinging the bats well,” Jason Varitek told reporters. “We can’t really swing the bats any worse. I think we've hit our worst spot of the year as a group swinging the bats.
"You run into those spots. We have to continue to go out there and play the game and hopefully turn that around,” he continued. “I think we've all been here before. We're one or two hits away from getting things back together."
EVEN THOUGH HE COULDN’T STOP A LOSING STREAK, JOSH BECKETT SHOWED WHY THE SOX WANT HIM ON THE MOUND AFTER A LOSS
It was nearly a very good outing for Josh Beckett. Instead, it was merely solid – four runs in a complete-game loss, seven strikeouts, seven hits, one walk.
Beckett had entered Tuesday 6-0 with a 1.84 ERA in nine starts following a Sox loss, his team having won eight of those contests. Clearly, Beckett takes the responsibility of stopping losing streaks seriously.
It would be difficult to imagine a pitcher who so willingly throws himself on the sword after a loss as the Sox’ ace. Tuesday – a night when Beckett found little solace in his performance – was no different.
“This one definitely falls on me. I think the right person got the loss. I think it was lost at about 7:30, in the first inning,” Beckett told reporters. “Two-out runs, that's demoralizing to everybody, especially to a pitcher. They did it three times to me. That's not good. That's unacceptable.”
Beckett did endure some unexpected bumps in the game, particularly in the first inning. In that frame, with Ian Kinsler on second following a leadoff double, Beckett walked Andruw Jones with two outs, then allowed a double-steal that preceded a two-run single by Hank Blalock.
It was a rare lapse for Beckett, but clearly, the pitcher is not resigned to such instances. And it is for that reason - for Beckett's complete accountability for even a momentary lapse - that he is regarded as the unquestioned ace of the Red Sox' staff.