Even in defeat, the progress was obvious. Though Josh Beckett remained winless for a fifth straight start, that fact reflected as much upon an offense that proved utterly anemic against White Sox starter Mark Buehrle as it did upon the Red Sox starter’s performance.
For the first time in nearly four weeks, Beckett delivered a quality start. For the first time in a month, he did not give up a home run. The final line – especially considering that manager Terry Francona suggested that Beckett had been fighting an illness for the past few days – was entirely credible.
Beckett logged seven innings while allowing six hits and three runs in his club’s 5-1 loss to the White Sox (recap). He walked a pair, hit a batter and struck out four. He was victimized by a three-run rally in the third, achieved on the strength of a couple hits, a walk and a hit batter but otherwise avoided harm. By any measure, there was noteworthy improvement over his recent struggles.
And yet, despite his solid outing, it was clearly not the sort of performance that Beckett had made customary during his run of complete dominance from the beginning of May to mid-August. Once again, Boston’s ace lacked his full complement of devastating weapons.
Sox manager Terry Francona has suggested in recent weeks that Beckett has run into problems by throwing too hard, and that he hasn’t been able to use his devastating two-seam fastball to its normal effect. That pitch, however, seemed once again to be working on Monday, giving the appearance of heading straight for a left-handed hitter’s belt buckle and then diving back over the inside corner.
Instead, it was Beckett’s curveball that betrayed him at pivotal moments on Monday. Beckett threw the pitch 24 times, and got just 12 strikes with it (one swing-and-miss). He often missed his spot badly. During the three-run third, Beckett hit a batter with the pitch and, with two outs and the game tied 1-1, hung a 1-2 curve to former teammate Mark Kotsay, who flared it into center for a two-run single.
“I hung a breaking ball to Kotsay and it’s a base hit,” Beckett told reporters. “That one big inning killed me.”
On the day, that was the only hit the White Sox mustered against Beckett’s curveball. Chicago went 1-for-4 with a walk and a hit batter on the pitch. Nonetheless, the fact that Beckett’s breaking ball betrayed him in a key situation continued a recent trend that may be part of his recent struggles.
Beckett is winless in his last five starts. During that span, his curve has been smacked for a .387 average, .424 OBP and 1.360 OPS and five homers. Those numbers represent a dramatic departure from the previous five starts, when Beckett’s breaking ball had overpowered opponents for a .132/.154/.312 line, and had not resulted in a single round-tripper. (Pitch F/X Data compiled from brooksbaseball.net.)
That pitch played a key role in the fact that Beckett ended his day ruing the one inning when he couldn’t stop the bleeding, as opposed to celebrating the fact that he kept his team in the game (or that he guaranteed that he will be a member of the Red Sox in 2010...not that there would have been any doubt that the Sox would have exercised their team option).
Beckett has now gone five starts without a win, matching his longest such stretch as a Red Sox (the previous such rut coming from July 29-Aug. 19, 2006). He has a 7.76 ERA in that stretch. (Beckett experienced two longer winless streaks with the Marlins.) The pitcher seems restless with anticipation for the end of his slide.
“It’s tough to look at it that way…We need to win ballgames right now,” Beckett told reporters. “That’s what everybody in this room gets paid to do. We didn’t win today.”
If Beckett rediscovers an off-speed pitch with which he can carve the strike zone, then he likely will once again position his team to do just that. Here are four more lessons digested as the Red Sox finished a seven-game roadtrip:
THE SAGA OF ‘AS THE ROTATION TURNS’ CONTINUES
At this point, the most obvious constant of the Red Sox rotation is that its back half is entirely uncertain. On Monday, that notion was reinforced.
Tim Wakefield, according to manager Terry Francona, did not suffer any setbacks following his gutsy six-inning, four-run outing on Saturday. Even so, the Sox canceled Wakefield’s side session on Monday. The team seems likely to skip the 43-year-old – who is trying to pitch through the pain of a loose bone fragment in his lower back – in his next scheduled turn through the rotation.
Francona told reporters that Wakefield most likely will not pitch until a series in Baltimore from Sept. 18-20. Even then, the Sox seem guarded about whether Wakefield might be able to pitch then or at all going forward.
“We’ll take a deep breath today and instead of him going out and trying to throw (on the) side, we’ll get back to Boston and kind of see what we’re going to do,” Francona told reporters. We have him penciled in down in Baltimore (Sept. 18-20), missing a turn.
“We’re trying to just figure out if he can pitch every 10 days, if that’s not doing him a disservice. We’re kind of stuck in the middle and I think he is, too, so we’ll sit down and kind of figure out a plan. There’s a lot of gray area.”
If Wakefield can tolerate it and the Red Sox medical staff signs off on it, the notion of having the knuckleballer pitch roughly every 10 days would appear to have some viability given the remainder of the 2009 baseball schedule.
Assuming that Daisuke Matsuzaka returns later this month, following a rehab outing for High-A Salem of the Carolina League on Wednesday, the Red Sox will have five members of the rotation (Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Paul Byrd, Matsuzaka) who can remain on turn.
If the Sox have Wakefield start roughly every 10 games, then the 43-year-old could effectively act as a sixth starter during a season-ending stretch of 20 games in 20 days for the Sox. Aside from Wakefield, the rest of the rotation could remain in line with either four or five days of rest between starts.
That time could be used to gauge further whether Wakefield can remain healthy and productive down the stretch. Then, should the Sox continue into the playoffs and want to use the knuckleballer in the postseason rotation, the times when a fourth starter would be needed are few.
If one wants to project waaaaay deeper into October than is reasonable, then depending on the schedule of the Division Series, the Sox either wouldn’t need a fourth starter or would employ one for Game 4 on Oct. 12. From there, a fourth starter would be needed on Oct. 20 for Game 4 of the ALCS and on Nov. 1 for Game 4 of the World Series.
Remarkably, Wakefield has given at least some signs that he might be able to remain effective over such a once-every-blue-moon schedule. He was spectacular on Aug. 26 (7 innings, 1 run) in his first start in seven weeks, and then effective in defeat in his next appearance on Sept. 5, 10 days later (6 innings, 4 runs).
“He's a little unique, because he can go out after sitting and go seven,” Francona told reporters. “It's not like a Beckett or somebody. It is unique.”
THINGS ARE NOT OK
AY FOR OKI
Through nearly three seasons with the Red Sox, Hideki Okajima had never gone more than two straight outings in which he’d allowed runs. He’d been touched for runs in back-to-back games just three times in his career: once in Aug. 2007, once in June 2008 and, most recently, this April.
Now, Okajima has a new measuring streak for his struggles. After giving up a two-out, two-run homer to Carlos Quentin on Sunday, the left-hander has allowed runs in each of his last four outings. He has faced 18 batters in that time, permitting 10 hits (two homers) and two walks.
It has been a dismal display by the left-hander, who left a hanging split that Quentin roped over the left-field fence. Of course, the Sox might have felt Okajima’s struggles more pointedly had they not acquired fellow left-hander Billy Wagner in the last week of August. With Wagner available, the Sox have the luxury of another dominating southpaw while Okajima struggles.
DAVID ORTIZ HAS BEEN LISTLESS OF LATE AGAINST LEFT-HANDERS
Before 2009, it would have been nearly impossible to imagine David Ortiz sitting against Mark Buehrle, no matter what kind of slump he’d been in entering the game. But Ortiz – who has a .354 career average, .404 OBP, .604 slugging percentage and two career homers against Buehrle – was on the bench for the series finale in Chicago.
Francona made the decision to sit Ortiz on the basis of a punchless roadtrip. In the first six games away from Fenway, Ortiz went 2-for-22 with two walks and seven punchouts, good for an .091 average, .158 OBP, .091 slugging and .258 OPS.
It is almost surprising to see that David Ortiz’ numbers this year against both lefties and righties are similar. He is hitting righties for a .226 average, .323 OBP, .426 slugging mark and .750 OPS. Against lefties, his production has been comparable: he .215/.290/.438/.728.
Yet lately, Ortiz has fared poorly against his fellow southpaws. He is hitless in his last 10 at-bats against lefties with four strikeouts, and over a slightly broader period, has gone 2-for-20 (.100) and 5-for-35 (.143) against left-handers.
Left-handers once again have been pounding the slugger in on his hands, and he appears to be struggling to respond. As such, it is no longer surprising to see him occasionally lose the game of lineup musical chairs involving Ortiz, Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek.
JACOBY ELLSBURY IS DOING HIS JOB
The lone Red Sox offense of the day was mustered by Jacoby Ellsbury, who singled, stole a base and scored in the first, and later added a second single. The multi-hit game has become a common occurrence for the Sox’ leadoff hitter this year.
Ellsbury is tied with Kevin Youkilis for the team lead in games in which he’s reached at least twice this year, having done so 69 times – or slightly more than in half of his team’s contests. The 25-year-old leads the Sox with 52 multi-hit games this season, and has gotten at least two hits in 23 of his last 43 games.
At this stage of his career, Ellsbury is not the prototypical leadoff hitter who draw walks and forces his way on base by any means necessary. Even so, he has maintained a consistent line drive stroke this year that has permitted him to hit at least .286 in every month of the season and to avoid the sort of prolonged slumps that characterized his 2008 season.
As such, there would appear to be little argument for removing him from the top of the batting order, particularly given his dynamic presence on the bases. Since returning to the leadoff spot on July 20, Ellsbury is hitting .310 with a .353 OBP and .442 slugging percentage as well as 20 steals in 22 attempts.
The second-year player has shown an ability to remain unchanged and undaunted by hitting leadoff. On a Sox team where that qualifies as a unique trait, Ellsbury’s fit for top billing in the lineup now seems secure.