Knowledge is not water-soluble.
Just 12 minutes of baseball were played at Fenway Park on Friday, with Red Sox starter Jon Lester loading the bases with one out in the top of the first before rains washed away the evening. A storm pounded the field for the better part of 2 hours, 20 minutes before the game was postponed to be part of a day-night doubleheader on Sunday.
Yet, during and around the 720 seconds of baseball that were played on Friday (and the roughly 8,400 seconds of delays), there was ample time to learn things — five of them, to be more precise — about the state of the Red Sox:
IT’S SHOWTIME FOR DAISUKE
The months of strengthening and conditioning in Fort Myers are over. So, too, is the minor league rehab assignment in which Daisuke Matsuzaka made four starts at four different levels, most recently a solid, 6.2-inning, three-hit, one-run outing for Single-A Salem.
On Tuesday, Matsuzaka will return to the mound to make his first big-league start since June 19. The right-hander, who is 1-5 with an 8.23 ERA in what has been to this point a lost season, now has an opportunity to contribute down the stretch and potentially into October.
The Sox have been careful to measure expectations for what the pitcher might deliver. As general manager Theo Epstein made clear in late August, it would be misguided to look at the pitcher as much more than a wild card.
“It remains to be seen what we’ll get. I don’t think anyone can say with any certainty,” Epstein said on Aug. 25. “I don’t think we’re counting on him to be a savior. But I don’t think it’s unrealistic to hope that he can contribute in some way in September.”
That opportunity starts on Tuesday against the Angels. For obvious reasons, the Sox would be thrilled if Matsuzaka can perform to anything resembling the standard he set in 2007 and 2008. During that time, he went 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA and held opposing batters to a .230 average, the lowest mark among American League starters (min. 300 innings).
It would be unrealistic to imagine Matsuzaka jumping back into such dominance. Nonetheless, Tuesday marks the start of his opportunity to prove whether he can play a useful role for the Sox going forward in 2009. Teammate Mike Lowell admitted that he is “absolutely” curious to see what the pitcher might offer.
“A good Daisuke is helpful to us. That’s for sure,” said Lowell. “We could use him. But we’ll see how he throws.”
WAKEFIELD AND BYRD AWAIT THEIR FATE
Had the rotation remained in line, Paul Byrd would have been scheduled to start on Tuesday. But with Matsuzaka entering the rotation that day, Byrd is suddenly thrust into a state of some limbo.
Byrd might start on Wednesday — a day on which Jon Lester was scheduled to start, until that plan got scuttled by Lester’s aborted start on Friday and his rescheduled outing in Sunday’s night game. But even with an admitted need for a starter on Wednesday, Sox manager Terry Francona suggested that any determination of a starter for that day would have to wait until after Sunday’s doubleheader.
And so, Byrd’s fate and rotation future assumes an air of some uncertainty. Of course, the Wednesday start against the Halos could prove a significant one should the Sox reach the postseason.
If the Sox qualify for the playoffs, after all, they will almost surely face the Angels yet again in the American League Division Series. That means that Wednesday’s starter will get a chance to prove that he can shut down an Angels lineup that ranks second in the majors with 5.6 runs per game.
Tim Wakefield, meanwhile, still is hoping for a start in Baltimore during the Sox’ series there from Sept. 18-20. The pitcher reported that he is still a bit sore as a result of a cortisone injection on Thursday, but suggested that the symptoms have subsided a bit. He will attempt some activities on Saturday that will help to gauge whether he might push ahead toward that Baltimore goal.
“We’ll let the injection take its toll,” he said.
THE WHOLE GAME-CALLING THING MIGHT BE OVERRATED
Initially, after the trade that brought Victor Martinez to Boston from the Indians, the Red Sox planned to have Jason Varitek behind the plate on days when either Josh Beckett or Jon Lester started. The team recognized that Varitek offered a significant level of comfort and confidence to a pair of pitchers with whom he had worked since 2006.
But Friday, for the fourth time in Lester’s last five outings, the left-hander was paired with Martinez. Clearly, there has been a reasonable level of comfort between Lester and Martinez, as evidenced by the pitcher’s 3-0 record and 1.29 ERA working with the former Indians catcher.
Francona offered credit for that effective partnership to several people, among them Martinez, Varitek (who has worked quite a bit with Martinez on game-planning) and pitching coach John Farrell. That said, Francona also tried to identify the man chiefly responsible for the pitcher’s dominance with Martinez behind the plate.
“Some of that is Lester, too,” said Francona. “There’s some nights, and I don’t mean to lessen their impact, but the way Lester pitches, I can probably catch him. He’s good — not lessening the significance of the catcher.”
Even so, while Francona did not want to diminish the value of a game-caller, the work of Martinez behind the plate serves as a reminder that there might be life beyond Varitek for the Red Sox' pitching staff. While the former Gold Glove catcher has earned his sterling defensive reputation and immense popularity
with pitchers, Varitek's ability to handle a staff is not a unique talent.
IT WAS A JUST, FAIR AND DECENT DOWNPOUR
A rainout has the potential to create havoc for a roster and schedule, and to skew a playoff race dramatically by forcing a need for a doubleheader that wipes out a pitching staff. Yet, that worst-case scenario did not come to pass.
Because the game was called after Lester had thrown to just four batters, he is expected to be able to return to pitch in the late game on Sunday. Rays starter James Shields, who warmed up but never pitched in the game, also will have his outing bumped back to Sunday.
And so the series matchups — Josh Beckett against Wade Davis on Saturday, Clay Buchholz against Matt Garza in Sunday’s early game, Lester and Shields in the series finale — remain unchanged.
“As it turned out, neither team was really hurt by (the rainout) because both pitchers tonight can pitch on Sunday,” reasoned Rays manager Joe Maddon, “so it's going to be fine.”
Even so, Lester found it hard to suppress some frustration about the interruption to his outing. The pitcher threw a ball disgustedly as he walked off the field, and he was told by umpire crew chief Randy Marsh that the game never should have been allowed to start.
“It's very frustrating,” Lester admitted. “They shouldn't even have started the game. It's different when you have a two-hour or one-and-a-half window (without rain), but when you have a 30-minute window and you're trying to get five innings of baseball in 30 minutes, that's very frustrating. You have to hurry up to go out there and warm up and you don't know if you're going to start on time. It's just one of those nights that you have to deal with and try to get through. Luckily, it gets postponed to Sunday.”
Because the makeup doubleheader will occur in September, during a time when both the Sox and Rays have expanded rosters, the doubleheader is unlikely to have the same impact on the teams’ pitching staffs as it might during a different time of year when the two squads were limited to 25 players. Moreover, because the Sox have an off-day on Monday, they will have an opportunity to reset their bullpen completely after Sunday’s day-night affair.
The equitable nature of the rain stretched as far as Texas, where the Rangers — who remain two games back of the Sox in the wild-card race — also were rained out, and also must make up the postponement with a doubleheader on Sunday. Given that shared fate, if either the Sox or Rangers fail to make the playoffs, they would find it difficult to blame a September downpour for derailing their seasons.
FRANCONA BENEFITED FROM LEARNING HOW TO BE LIKE MIKE
Terry Francona learned about more than just the merits of a shaved head from his year managing Michael Jordan in the minor leagues. When Jordan retired from basketball in 1994, he played minor league baseball for Francona and the Double-A Birmingham Barons, a White Sox affiliate.
During that time, Jordan had a great deal of learning to do about baseball, a sport he had not played in roughly 14 years. Yet, Francona had just as much learning to do from Jordan.
The current Red Sox skipper got to see how Jordan dealt with the constant zoo of attention, an experience that came in handy for Francona in Boston. The manager also got to learn about a man who is renowned as perhaps the most ferocious competitor in the world, someone who broke a ping-pong table and tennis racket during his time with the Barons.
“That was,” said Francona, “the best experience I could have ever had.”