Paul Byrd’s first outing with the Red Sox was unbelievable. His second bordered on unwatchable.
Byrd laid an egg against the White Sox on Friday, getting hammered for 10 hits and seven runs in just 2.1 innings. In so doing, he became the third Boston starter since 1954 to allow 10 or more hits in a game when he recorded seven or fewer outs, joining John Tudor (4/28/82, 1.2 IP, 10 H, 6 ER) and the immortal Nate Minchey (6/12/94, 2.1 IP, 10 H, 5 ER) in that distinction.
Byrd’s outing was the second shortest of the season by a Sox starter, with only Daisuke Matsuzaka’s one-inning outing on April 14 (a prelude to a trip to the disabled list) having been more brief. Boston’s 12-2 blowout loss to the White Sox (recap) narrowed the team’s lead in the wild-card race to two games, and, of course, it raised anew the ongoing questions that have existed about the state of the team’s rotation.
It is of course possible to overreact to a single start. Byrd, after all, is less than a week removed from outpitching Roy Halladay and having been viewed as a potential stabilizing factor for the Red Sox rotation.
And his stuff – anything but overpowering to begin with – did not seem measurably worse than what it was in his 2009 debut. Rather, the problem seemed one of real estate, as the White Sox jumped out of their shoes at the sight of mid-80s fastballs that stayed over the plate rather than sneaking over corners. While Byrd acknowledged that he had a “disaster night,” he did not see reason for panic.
“If it happens back to back then maybe I’ll be a little worried,” Byrd told reporters. “(But) I don’t think this is anything to panic over or say, ‘Yeah, I don’t have it anymore.’ I really feel like it’s just one of those nights.
“It is tough. I was hoping to give our team a much better performance tonight. I don’t want to put this team in that situation. I want us to be in the game when I’m on the mound. It’s totally unacceptable for me. I shoulder the blame. I dropped the ball here. We’ll see if I can’t get it going the next time out there… I’ve just got to get back out there and get ready to establish the fastball in and mix pitches.”
Assuming he makes another start (it is worth noting, of course, that Daisuke Matsuzaka’s rehab start for Triple A Pawtucket on Friday occurred on the same day as Byrd’s start), Byrd may well right the course. Even so, the ongoing weakness at the back of the Sox rotation remains a concern for the team, and with good reason.
Since the All-Star break, Sox starters are now 15-17 with a 5.35 ERA. A lot of that reflects on the miserable performances of John Smoltz and Brad Penny – both of whom sought refuge in the National League.
Even with those pitchers gone, however, the Sox are now having an open tryout for the fourth and fifth starters spots among four pitchers (Byrd, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Junichi Tazawa, Tim Wakefield) who have made a combined seven starts in the second half. In that time, that group has a combined 6.42 ERA.
That pattern, combined with the dwindling number of games on the calendar, have created more urgency to each poor start than might exist at another time of year. And so it was that Byrd’s outing on Friday heightened the sense of uncertainty surrounding the Sox’ fourth and fifth starters for the remainder of 2009.
As such, the question of what went wrong for Byrd leads five questions about the Sox that emerged on Friday. The others…
CAN TIM WAKEFIELD REMAIN HEALTHY?
Tim Wakefield experienced no setbacks following his Thursday side session in Tampa Bay, and so the Sox made the decision to have the knuckleballer start on Saturday.
Wakefield, of course, has made just one start in the second half – a dazzling seven-inning, one run effort against the White Sox at Fenway on Aug. 26 – and he was scratched from his next start due to a recurrence of the discomfort in his lower back that stems from a loose fragment.
Given that precedent, Saturday will only offer a partial answer about what Wakefield might provide going forward. At some point, the pitcher – who is 11-3 with a 4.18 ERA – must also prove that he can remain in the rotation after a start.
Even as the Sox are eager to see how the 43-year-old will perform when back on the mound, they are also trying to manage expectations about the pitcher’s ability to remain in the rotation.
“He might not be able to take the ball every five days or six. We know that,” manager Terry Francona told reporters. “He knows that. But we'll just kind of see how he does.”
IS MATSUZAKA READY FOR THE MAJORS?
The line was better than in his previous outing. Then again, following a Double A rehab appearance in which Daisuke Matsuzaka had allowed five runs on 49 pitches in the first inning, it would have been nearly impossible for the pitcher to be worse.
That caveat aside, Matsuzaka’s Triple A rehab appearance for Pawtucket on Friday was at least competitive. The right-hander, out since mid-June while recovering from shoulder weakness, threw 4.1 innings for the PawSox, allowing two runs on a pair of solo homers. Overall, he allowed four hits, walked one and struck out three. His fastball registered as high as 92 mph on the McCoy Stadium radar gun.
“Starting right from my warmup in the bullpen, I felt like I was able to get after it today,” Matsuzaka said, according to the Providence Journal. “I think, within myself at least, I’m ready to go (to the majors).”
During the most recent homestand, Francona suggested that the team had penciled Matsuzaka in to pitch on Sept. 9 against the Orioles. That said, the team does have the option of giving the pitcher another minor-league rehab start if it so chooses, though all would be against young competition.
Both Lowell of the Short-Season Single-A New York-Penn League and Greenville of the Single-A South Atlantic League will be in the playoffs next week. High-A Salem of the Carolina League could also be playing when Matsuzaka is next scheduled to start next week.
IS THERE A DARKHORSE IN THIS RACE?
It seems difficult to imagine someone other than Byrd, Wakefield or Matsuzaka emerging as a key rotation contributor down the stretch. Nonetheless, it is a commentary on the unusual situation faced by the Sox that there is at least a remote chance that another name could surface for consideration in the back of the rotation.
Tazawa is clearly trending in the wrong direction, having allowed 14 earned runs in his last 7.2 innings. Though he has been dreadful in his last two outings, however, he is not too far removed from an outing in which he delivered six shutout innings against the Yankees, demonstrating an ability to shut down a playoff-caliber lineup.
Meanwhile, the Sox are going to call up Michael Bowden to serve as an insurance long-relief option behind Wakefield on Saturday. Bowden has enjoyed a terrific year in Triple-A. He has a 3.13 ERA that ranks fourth in the International League.
He has also pitched in a pair of big-league games this year, both in relief. One went well (two shutout innings against the Yankees in April) and the other was a disaster (two innings, seven runs against the Yankees last month).
Realistically, it is nearly impossible to imagine Bowden forging a place in the rotation. Then again, a month ago, it would have been nearly impossible to imagine that Byrd would be a legitimate contender for such a spot when he was sitting at home on a couch.
Entering a series against the Yankees just two weeks ago, Bowden, according to one club source, was under consideration – along with Tazawa and Penny – to claim the fifth starter’s spot entering a series against the Yankees. Penny and Bowden were both pounded, while Tazawa excelled.
All the same, it does not seem beyond the realm of possibility that three pitchers from the group of Wakefield, Matsuzaka, Byrd and Tazawa might simply prove unable to deliver, whether due to health or pure performance issues. If that happens, then perhaps Bowden could sneak into the rotation for a couple of starts.
CAN THE RED SOX SUCCEED WITH A PITCHING STAFF THAT IS LOADED WITH OLD MEN?
The Red Sox can claim one of the most dominant young, homegrown collections of arms in the majors. The team features Jon Lester (25), Jonathan Papelbon (28), Clay Buchholz (25), Daniel Bard (24) and Manny Delcarmen (27) as examples of the success of their draft-and-develop foundation.
Nonetheless, a lot of the team’s fate this year will depend on the performance of pitchers who are at least a decade older than that group. Byrd (38), Billy Wagner (38), Takashi Saito (39) and Tim Wakefield (43) represent the team’s old guard. Until early-August, the team also featured 42-year-old John Smoltz.
Only once before in team history – in 2005, thanks to incredibly brief cameos from Mike Remlinger and Mike Stanton, who joined Wakefield, Curt Schilling, Mike Timlin and David Wells – has the team featured more pitchers age 38 and older in a season.
Interestingly, despite the Sox’ impressive group of young arms, the team has the oldest pitching staff in the American League this year, with an average age of 29.8 years. The veteran pitchers will have a great deal to say about whether or not the Sox can achieve both a solid top-to-bottom rotation. Wagner and Saito, meanwhile, will help to determine whether the Sox will have an historically deep bullpen (see “The Red Sox Bullpen Depth Could Make History”) that is capable of giving Boston an alternate path to victory on days when a starter falters.