ANAHEIM -- Let's get right to it. The first (and second, and third) thing we learned, and really already knew, was that the Red Sox need Tim Wakefield to be good.
Games like Wednesday night at Angel Stadium -- with Wakefield surrendering seven runs on 11 hits in what turned out to be an 8-4 loss for the Red Sox to the Angels -- are going to happen. They hadn't this season, with the knuckleballer's last loss coming way back on April 10 in this very same park, at the hands of this very same team. But when you're dealing with the unpredictability of the starter's pitch of choice, bumps in the road are virtually unavoidable.
But here is the reality when it comes to the Red Sox and Wakefield: If it wasn't for the 42-year-old's run of good fortune leading up to Wednesday night's debacle, this would be a team riding the coattails of a solid bullpen and not much else.
The Red Sox' starting staff currently boasts a 5.91 ERA, second-worst in the majors. Without Wakefield, even with the the start that made his ERA jump up more than a run (from 2.92 to 4.03), the Sox starters' ERA would stand at a big league-worst 6.44.
"I think everybody thought coming in that our starting pitching was going to be one of our strong points," said Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay. "But given what our record is at right now with the way the starting pitching has gone, it's probably a good thing. They've struggled and they're not going to struggle all year. We're still eight games above .500. I guess that's the silver lining."
The stark reality of the Red Sox starters was brought into clearer focus following the second inning of the Sox' latest loss. Wakefield had cruised through the initial pair of frames before he succumbed to a five-run third inning, which was highlighted by Mike Napoli's towering three-run blast well over the center field wall.
All of this came after the Sox had staked Wakefield to a four-run lead. It was a far cry from what the starter had usually delivered throughout his first six starts.
"The offense scored me four runs early, gave me a comfortable lead, and I couldn't hold it," Wakefield said. "It's one of those days. I just tried to grind it out and it didn't work. I pride myself on giving the club innings and I wasn't able to do that tonight. Physically, I felt fine. I left the bullpen feeling great and I thought it had good movement throwing strikes. I just couldn't convert it into the game."
So now the question is who will pick up the slack while Wakefield waits for his next chance to keep the Red Sox' starting staff above water? The first contestant will be Brad Penny, who gets the call against the Angels' Ervin Santana Thursday afternoon. The quest of the rotation to right itself could now offer five things to learn in its own right (one for each member of the staff), and so that seems an appropriate point of departure for today's Five Things:
BRAD PENNY IS LEARNING TO ADJUST TO A NEW LEAGUE
Penny, who is already being rumored to be possible trade bait when he becomes eligible to be dealt on June 15, has found somewhat of a groove in his last two starts (6 earned runs in 12 1/3 innings). Wednesday, prior to the Sox' loss, the starter admitted that there has been somewhat of an adjustment when it comes to pitching in the American League for the first time in his career.
"I think it's definitely a better-hitting league, but if you make pitches ... when I've gotten beat, I made a lot of mistakes," said Penny. "I left it up in the zone or missed my spots with my breaking stuff."
Penny has also come to understand what is important both Thursday and going forward while living life in the AL.
"Avoiding walks," said Penny, who is walking batters at a greater clip (4.5 per 9 innings) than at any point in his career. "Staying out of the big inning. People are also going to try to bunt on you and move runners over. They're going to steal on you like Tampa Bay. The Angels have always been consistent with that, bunting and moving guys over."
JOSH BECKETT IS TRYING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM
Another key member of the underachieving starting staff, Josh Beckett, hopes he took a big step in the right direction Wednesday. The righty, who has made some gains in allowing three runs over six innings in his last two outings, looked sharp in his bullpen session, successfully taking the suggestions of Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell and carrying them over into his execution.
"He's had some starts definitely more in line with what we've expected," Farrell said after the session with Beckett. "The one thing we've tried to stress is being dominant in the bottom of the strike zone. While he's had two good outings, he can still be more efficient, if we compared it to '07 when he he had some seven-inning games where he threw 95 to 100 pitches. But now he has had more pitches up in the zone which will get fouled off instead of pitches down in the zone that will get that ground ball out.
"He's making adjustments little by little. I think he's capable of working down in the zone much more consistent, which he did today."
Another aspect of what Beckett worked on in his bullpen session was how he can offer the kind of deception from the stretch, with runners on base, as he does when working from the wind-up. With men on base the Sox' ace is allowing a .360 opponents batting average while walking 13 batters and striking out 17. With nobody on opponents are hitting .266 with Beckett striking out 24 and issuing just seven free passes.
Beckett also points out another key element of any potential surge of success.
"I'll tell you what," he said, "I'm a lot healthier than I was last year."
A keen eye will also be cast toward Jon Lester (2-3, 6.31 ERA) and the continuing rehab of Daisuke Matsuzaka. But while all four continue to make their adjustments, looking for the same stuff that helped the Sox total the eighth-best starting rotation in the majors (4.01 ERA) last season, the hope for the Red Sox is that Wakefield can get on another one of these rolls.
THE BIG STAGE FIT BARD
There were differences for Daniel Bard in his major-league debut -- a two-inning, one-hit, one-walk, one-strikeout, and no-run outing. As he pointed out following the appearance against the Angels, there were substantially more fans witnessing his high-90 mph heat, the mound was more manicured than he was used to ("It was so hard I couldn't find that little hole I'm used to"), and it isn't every day six game-worn baseballs are presented following the game to preserve the moment.
And normally Bard would recognize when he came on with no outs and runners at second and third that there were, indeed, runners at second and third.
"To be honest with you I thought there was just a guy on second until the third pitch," he said. "I threw and I looked over and saw Hunter on third. I hope (Red Sox pitching coach John) Farrell doesn't see this. I guess it didn't matter. I was going after the hitter either way."
But there were some things that remained the same as what he had left behind in the minor leagues. He ran in from the bullpen the same way as always. Crouched down in back of the mound to pray just like he had since his pitching career kicked off as a 12-year-old. And then he proceeded to blow away his hitter with three straight fastballs, who in this case was LA's Mike Napoli, Bard's very first major league opponent.
Napoli, the Angels' fastball-hitting catcher who had altered the game already with a third-inning, three-run homer against Wakefield, flailed at three consecutive fastballs from Bard. The final one hit 97 on the gun, with the image of the hitter's tardiness suggesting it was even a bit faster.
"He kind of blew my doors off there," Napoli said. "He's got a pretty easy delivery, but he brings it up there pretty firm. I looked on the chart to see his velocity and it said '94 to 98.' He got it up there and it was by me. After facing Wakefield, it was a pretty big difference. It's the first time I've seen [Bard], and he just threw fastballs. Our gun is pretty legit, so if it said 97, that's what [the last pitch] was. He was impressive."
It wasn't as though Bard's debut went off completely without a hitch. His breaking ball wasn't as sharp as it had been with Pawtucket, and Chone Figgins took advantage of the fact the reliever probably wasn't going to throw over to first two times in a row, breaking for second before Bard had lifted his lead leg en route to a stolen base.
It was all excusable considering the 23-year-old probably was weighed down with more thoughts than a usual trip to the mound.
"Too many things to list, probably," said Bard when asked what was going through his head upon entering the game with nobody out in the sixth inning. "That was the one thing, I don't think I had more nerves than a minor league outing, just kind of a lot going through your head. Things not even baseball-related. Different things. Once I'm able to eliminate that it will be what I've done my whole life."
BAY'S TIMING IS IMPECCABLE
Jason Bay was given a slightly different model of bat upon arriving in Boston last season, one with a bit of a thinner handle.
"You would barely be able to notice the difference, but if you're hitting you can," he said. "I liked it so I kept it.'
As far as changes go, that's been about it.
After hitting his 10th home run of the season -- a first-inning, two-run blast well over the left field stands -- while raising his average to .319, Bay described his current existence as "it's the exact same me." But while nothing has changed in regards to the way the outfielder approaches his job -- with the exception of the altered model of bat -- he isn't blind to the timing of his good fortune.
Bay is living a player's dream: A career season in a contract year.
"Coincidentally, I understand that," said Bay of how his current performance is positioning himself as the potential of free agency awaits. "I wish I was good enough to flip that switch. I just, for whatever reason, am doing it."
The month of May has usually been kind to Bay. Last year he hit .330 with seven homers in the season's second month, and the year before May saw him claim a .336 batting average with four homers. And, in his best show of force in the gateway to summer, the righty hitter claimed a .321 average with 12 home runs.
But none of those instances had as much riding on them as this time around, which currently has him hitting .311 with five homers through 13 days of May.
All of this while establishing himself as the top of the heap among free agent hitters, especially with the other perceived prize, Matt Holliday, struggling with a .240 batting average and just four homers in Oakland.
"I do the exact same thing I've always done -- watching, hitting, (batting practice). Nothing has changed," Bay said. "The other issue too is you get in a situation like you are here in Boston, the magnitude of the at-bats every single day, it kind of doesn't allow you to take time off. You're going to give at-bats away, and that still happens here, but to a much lesser extent. Maybe that helps keep the edge. It's not something that is like, 'I'm working out harder, I'm hitting more, I'm studying more tape and it's all paying off. It's the exact same me."
THE RED SOX' TAXI SQUAD IS IN FULL EFFECT
Dustin Pedroia sat out his second straight game with a groin injury -- even though the second baseman fought with manager Terry Francona, insisting that he was ready to return to the lineup. With Pedroia out, the Sox kept Gil Velazquez on the roster for another day. Meanwhile, first baseman/outfielder Chris Carter was brought to Southern California for possible activation. With Kevin Youkilis on the disabled list and Jeff Bailey on the roster, the Sox do not currently have a back-up first baseman, and Carter could provide a left-handed complement to Bailey in that regard.