If power pitchers thrive in October, then no one is better positioned than the Red Sox to make hay in the postseason. Ultimately, the “dilemma” about whether to have Jon Lester or Josh Beckett serve as the Game 1 starter of the American League Division Series against the Angels was less significant than the fact that the Sox were positioned to make such a choice.
Both pitchers have proven that they have the ability to dominate under the October spotlight. Both have shown during this regular season that they have arsenals that rank among the best in the majors.
For now, with Justin Verlander and the Tigers not in the postseason, Lester leads all postseason starters in strikeouts (225) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.0). Beckett ranks third (199 punchouts) and fourth (8.4 strikeouts per nine innings) in the two categories, in a year where he prided himself on pitching to contact.
Simply put, the Sox have two pitchers who are as capable as any others in the postseason of shoving the ball down their opponents’ throats.
In the final days of the season, both pitchers received clean bills of health in their last tuneups for the playoffs. Lester allowed two hits while firing 6.1 scoreless innings on Thursday, showing no limitations as a result of having been hit by a line drive on the side of his right knee.
Beckett allowed four runs in five innings on Saturday, though he seemed to shake off the rust of not having pitched in 10 days in his final three innings. He also showed no effects of the back spasms that cost him his previous start. If anything, according to catcher Victor Martinez, Beckett was “too strong.”
The health of both of their most dominant pitchers confirmed, the Sox had the enviable choice to make of Beckett or Lester for Game 1 against the Angels. The team selected Lester for the first game, followed by Beckett in Game 2 and Clay Buchholz in Game 3, for a few reasons.
First, Lester has been the more dominant pitcher this year. He went 15-8 with a 3.41 ERA, including 12-3 with a 2.31 ERA from May 31 through the end of the season. Beckett, meanwhile, went 17-6 but with a 3.81 ERA.
Further, in the event that the Sox’ series starts on Thursday, they would be in a position to start Lester in Game 1 (on six days of rest) and then again, if they faced a 2-1 deficit in the series, on three days of rest in Game 4. That would allow Beckett to make starts in Game 2 (on five days of rest) and, after four days of rest, Game 5.
“We’re going to have to lean on both of them,” manager Terry Francona said. “To flip-flop them around we would have one guy on normal rest and another guy on 10. That doesn’t make sense to any of us, including Beckett and Lester.
“We don’t know when we’re playing, but we think Lester is situated where he can come back on short rest and that would have Beckett, if there’s a Game 5, on regular rest.”
The club would not necessarily need to pursue that avenue. If, for instance, they won two of the first three games, they could turn to Daisuke Matsuzaka in Game 4 and have Lester pitch if a Game 5 proved necessary.
Even so, the idea of being able to respond to two losses in their first three games by having Lester and Beckett on the hill would be an appealing one for the Sox. Of all of the American League pitchers in the postseason, Lester and Beckett will rank no worse than second and third in strikeouts (225 and 199). (Justin Verlander would top the list if the Tigers beat the Twins.) That suggests the potential for dominance that is often considered a hallmark of postseason success.
“People talk about power arms in the playoffs. I can’t think of much more power than Beckett and Lester,” Jed Lowrie said. “If those guys do what they’re capable of doing, we’re shaping up pretty good.”
Beckett was 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA in two starts against the Angels this year. Lester has yet to face them. He did, however, pitch against the Halos twice in the 2008 Division Series, logging 14 innings without allowing an earned run in his two starts, both Red Sox wins.
Ultimately, for the Sox, the issue of who will start Game 1 was always less important than the identity of the two pitchers who they hope will anchor their playoff run.
“We have two horses at the front,” said catcher Jason Varitek. “That bodes well.”
Here are four other lessons from a day when the Sox’ 95th victory, a 12-7 win over the Indians (recap), represented an afterthought for a club whose focus is now trained solely on its sixth playoff run in seven years:
THE CAPTAIN DOES NOT WANT TO CONTEMPLATE 2010
Jason Varitek’s season had its moments, foremost in the first couple of months of the season, when every time he connected with the ball it seemed to jump as if struck by a sledgehammer. But his performance waned as the season progressed, and so when Victor Martinez brought thump back to the catching position, Varitek saw his job description narrow.
Varitek’s playing time diminished, as the Sox worked to develop a rapport between Martinez and each of the four postseason starters. But the 37-year-old, who before this season signed a one-year, $5 million deal that came with a $5 million team option and a $3 million player option for the 2010 season, never made an issue of his decreased playing time.
“Jason Varitek has had a reduced role. He’s the captain of our team,” Francona said. “There hasn’t been one instance where Tek has done anything except try to help make our team better.”
As such, Francona felt compelled to give Varitek a moment to take a bow in Sunday’s season finale. After Clay Buchholz (who was working with Martinez) left the game, Varitek entered to work the middle innings. With one out in the top of the eighth, Dusty Brown entered the contest so that Varitek could leave the field to an ovation from the Fenway crowd.
Clearly, the ovation was about more than Varitek’s .209 average, .312 OBP and .703 OPS in 2009. Varitek received a salute from the crowd for his 1,439 games with the Red Sox, for the two World Series teams on which he was the defining clubhouse presence, and a career in which he has been focused solely on the betterment of his team, even if it came at the expense of personal goals.
Varitek expressed appreciation for the treatment, even if it might him slightly sheepish.
“I get kind of embarrassed,” Varitek said. “It was kind of a blur for me. I got caught kind of off guard. … I’ve been here a long time. I definitely appreciate it.”
Of course, there is a chance that Sunday represented the final opportunity for Fenway Park to salute Varitek as a member of the Red Sox. Assuming that the Sox do not exercise their team option, it is conceivable that Varitek could decline the player option to seek a larger opportunity elsewhere, or he could simply call it quits.
Right now, such scenarios are purely speculative. Varitek suggests that it would be inappropriate for him to discuss the 2010 season so long as his team is competing for a championship.
“That’s not a fair question to ask right now,” Varitek said of his plans for 2010. “We’ve got the playoffs to think of.”
Nonetheless, on Sunday, just in case 2009 becomes Varitek’s swan song with the Sox, it seemed an appropriate moment for the longtime backbone of the Sox to receive his due.
ANOTHER SOX VETERAN WILL NOT BE A PART OF THE DIVISION SERIES
It was a difficult decision based on Tim Wakefield’s stature within the organization, but a fairly straightforward one based on his physical condition. The knuckleballer’s All-Star first half, in which he went 11-3 with a 4.31 ERA, yielded to utter disappointment in the second half, as he was able to make just four starts while going 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA. He is unable to field his position due to weakness in his leg, the result of a herniated disc that is impinging the sciatic nerve.
As a result, the Sox confirmed the obvious in deciding that Wakefield will not be part of the first-round playoff roster. Even so, the team asked Wakefield to hold off before undergoing surgery to repair the disc, given the possibility that an injury could lead the club to seek a start from the knuckleballer later in the postseason. One need look only to the 2007 playoffs, when a shoulder injury to Wakefield forced the Sox to use Jon Lester as a starter, for precedent about the need to have available starting depth.
Through his immense struggles to get to the mound, Wakefield has shown that he is capable of enduring a long layoff yet still pitch well enough to permit his team a chance to win.
“I think it’s kind of obvious the situation he’s in. He’s been trying to go out there kind of on one leg,” Francona said. “What we did also talk to him about was not shelving his season. We know one day you can feel good about your pitching and then something happens. Wake has that ability, whether it’s two weeks from now, to throw a pretty good game. He’s on board with that, which we appreciated a lot.
“He’s not going to be there in the first round. That doesn’t mean something couldn’t happen … It’s been very difficult for him physically. We didn’t just want to shut him down either. He could still play a role.”
Wakefield declined comment, except to say that the decision was “fine. I’ll be ready.”
There were other injury updates, among them:
Rocco Baldelli — Because the Angels feature a pair of southpaw starters — Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders — it seemed reasonable to expect a role for Baldelli off the bench. The team remains hopeful that Baldelli will be available, but following a strained left hip flexor on Friday, his status is in question.
Baldelli will have an MRI on Monday. The Sox are hopeful that, because their series against the Angels might not employ one of their left-handed starters before Saturday’s Game 3, the reserve outfielder might still be able to make the playoff roster.
“We’ll see where it goes. It’s a big bat to have,” Francona said. “[The injury] doesn’t take him off [the playoff roster]. It certainly could. It hasn’t yet. I think we’re going to treat it aggressively and see where this goes. Potentially, they don’t throw a lefty until the third game.”
If Baldelli is unavailable, Brian Anderson would likely sneak onto the Division Series roster.
The shortstops — The Red Sox’ outlook at shortstop looks considerably more promising than it did on Friday. In that game, Alex Gonzalez took the brunt of a Kerry Wood heater on the hand. There were initial fears of a fracture, but those were erased when X-rays on Saturday proved negative.
Still, there was some curiosity to see whether Gonzalez would be affected by the injury. Any doubts were allayed when Gonzalez lined a solo homer into the Monster seats on the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the second inning on Sunday.
Gonzalez’ was not the only notable homer by a Sox middle infielder on Sunday.
Jed Lowrie entered Sunday with just five hits in 46 at-bats while hitting left-handed, good for a .109 average, .157 OBP and .152 slugging mark. The ongoing discomfort in his wrist as he continues to recover from surgery in April often has rendered his plate appearances against right-handed pitchers a struggle, leading to questions about whether he can serve a reliable postseason role.
But in the bottom of the sixth inning, Lowrie showed an ability to battle and produce against a hard-throwing right-hander. He fell behind Indians reliever Chris Perez, 1-2, before fouling off a pair of mid-90s fastballs.
Then, when he got a 95 mph belt-high fastball on the inner half of the plate, he turned on it. Lowrie had choked up to make his swing more compact, and he wasn’t able to follow through on the swing due to the persistent pain when he takes his left-handed cuts. Still, he squared it solidly enough to pull it into the visitors bullpen for a grand slam, the first of Lowrie’s career.
“I have been taking stronger swings from the left side the last couple days. That’s not to say that it was without pain,” Lowrie said. “It worked out great on that swing, but it’s not my swing. It’s not how I normally swing. I have to make that adjustment [on the follow-through] when it’s not feeling that great.”
Even so, the ability to adapt his game and play through pain offered a suggestion that Lowrie is almost certainly the Sox’ best option as a backup utility infielder for the Division Series. With Nick Green’s efforts to return to the field “stuck in neutral,” in the words of Francona, Lowrie offered his most significant evidence of an ability to contribute if given the opportunity.
Manny Delcarmen — Delcarmen was rendered unavailable to pitch this weekend after he got into a car accident on I-93 on Saturday. The right-hander reported today that he feels better than he did on Saturday, when he faced significant stiffness in his back and neck, but the team had been hoping to see him pitch before making a final determination about whether he might be on the playoff roster.
Delcarmen said that he was fortunate that he was driving his Hummer, rather than his wife’s Nissan Murano, or else the injuries he incurred while trying to avoid the car that careened in front of him could have been far worse.
There is a significant chance that he could be left off the playoff roster for the Division Series — especially considering that the Sox typically have carried just 10 pitchers in the first round of the playoffs — particularly after he struggled to an 8.59 ERA after July 28. Still, that roster spot seems a secondary consideration to the fact that the right-hander emerged unscathed from his accident.
THE GAME 3 STARTER’S PLAYOFF TUNEUP WAS OFF KEY
On the one hand, Clay Buchholz showed legitimate swing-and-miss stuff, as evidenced by his six punchouts in just three innings. On the other hand, he showed an ability to struggle with his fastball command and give up runs in a hurry.
Buchholz, a critical component of the Sox’ second-half success, had a dreadful final performance in preparation for his first career playoff appearance. Hours before he was publicly named Boston’s Game 3 starter for the postseason, he allowed six runs on five hits and two walks. For the second straight game, Buchholz allowed a homer to the first batter he faced in the top of the first inning.
Buchholz insisted that the problem was “fixable,” and his stuff appeared lively: He had a mid-90s fastball and also got plenty of swings and misses on his excellent changeup.
The Sox did not want to overreact to a poor performance in a meaningless game. Even so, Sunday marked the first time that Buchholz had allowed more than three runs in consecutive games this year, and his ability to attack the bottom of the strike zone failed him.
“That’s been it the last two times out,” Buchholz said. “The fastball has been up. Everything has been up. I’ve been getting hit in situations that in the past I’ve been getting outs.”
He felt that there were small mechanical adjustments that would restore him to the form that allowed him to go 5-0 with a 1.32 ERA over a four-week span that began at the end of August.
JACOBY ELLSBURY HAS AN UNUSUAL SET OF SKILLS
Jacoby Ellsbury wasted little time in making his presence felt. He dumped a single to left to open the bottom of the first inning for the Red Sox, then swiped second base for his 70th steal of the year.
Ellsbury finished the day 1-for-3, putting his year-ending batting average at .301 and suggesting a well-rounded skill set that has helped to establish him as one of the foremost impact leadoff hitters in the game.
He became the 12th major leaguer and eighth American Leaguer to swipe 70 bags and hit over .300. He is also just the third player in the last 20 years to swipe 70 bags in a season when he also produced an OPS of at least .750, joining Jose Reyes and Kenny Lofton (who did it twice).