It could have been bad for these Red Sox.
The fact this team was coming off two straight uneasy losses to the White Sox heading into the tail-end of the Labor Day weekend was tolerable. The rust of Paul Byrd and health of Tim Wakefield made both defeats somewhat palatable, at least this time around.
But then there was Jon Lester and Josh Beckett.
You can identify hitting, defense, relief work and back-of-the-rotation starting pitching but there are simply no two names on this Red Sox roster who mean more to the late-summer hopes and dreams of this team. And that’s why the Red Sox’ 6-1 win on Sunday in Chicago (recap) was so important.
One down, one to go.
For the Red Sox, the obvious benefit of finding their winning ways was heading into the final game of their seven-game road trip knowing they can do no worse than a two-game bulge on their nearest Wild Card competitor, the Texas Ranger.
It was Lester, however, who truly defined the day.
As unfair as it may be, the Red Sox can’t have any sort of deviation by Lester from the path he has been on over his last 18 starts. During that span the lefty is not only 9-2 with a 2.25 ERA, but has allowed three earned runs or less all but once.
This time around the dominance came in the form of 122 pitches of excellence, with Lester going seven innings without giving up a single run. It was the 10th time over a tremendous 18-game stretch that he has allowed one earned run or less.
"He was outstanding," Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell told reporters regarding Lester. "Even when he fell behind, he was able to come back and throw strikes and locate 3-1, 3-2 pitches. He gave us seven strong. He's been solid for us all year. This was a big start. Especially after the way the first two games went."
It was a start that re-entrenched the Red Sox as the favorites in the race for the Wild Card. Yes, even after taking two of three in St. Petersburg, and before the two hiccups in Chicago on Friday and Saturday, some doubts were creeping in. And for that you can point at the mere suggestion of a Lester injury (once thought to be his groin, but then revealed as something in his right hip), along with Beckett’s stream of crooked box scores.
As for Lester’s ailment – which he insisted wasn’t going to be any sort of issue after the pitcher was pulled out of his start against the Rays for precautionary reasons – he said it was a non-factor. It’s not as if the lefty felt 100 percent, but it wasn’t because of his hip.
“It was just one of those days, 30 some odd starts a year and you just have days where no matter what you do, it just doesn’t feel right,” Lester told reporters. “Today was one of those days. I was just cutting a lot of balls off but I was missing in good places. I was missing down, I was missing out of the zone. I’d rather be doing that than missing over the plate and getting hurt. Today was just one of those battle days that you need to go through every once in a while and I’m just fortunate that we’re on the right side of it this time.”
The bumps and bruises will come, and the stuff will leave on occasion, but Lester’s ability to deal with both in his last two starts makes visions of ballgames outside the regular season schedule a lot clearer.
“He did a great job,” Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez told reporters. “Obviously, I was talking to him even that he didn’t bring his best stuff, his best command, but that’s what separates a good pitcher like him. He was able to calm down and breathe and go back again and execute pitches when needed.”
And then there is Beckett…
BIG START FOR BECKETT… IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE
Red Sox manager Terry Francona simplified for those inquiring about Josh Beckett’s frame of mind heading into Monday’s start.
“It’s his day. Big game and I think he’s real excited to pitch,” Francona said. “I think he always is.”
In the realm of Beckett’s season, it is a big day. He has an 8.88 ERA over his last four starts, but also does carry the momentum of three solid innings at the tail-end of his last performance.
According to the Red Sox’ ace, he is healthy while not carrying too much concern over the prospects of continued mediocrity. While talking in front of his locker the day after his start against Tampa Bay, the term “paralysis by overanalysis” was his way of warning all those in search of what ailed him.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said, “I’ll be fine.”
But for Beckett this start means more than just an opportunity to start his sprint to another round of October dominance. With this, what will be his 28th start of the season, the starter will have his $12 million option for the 2010 season vest.
It will be the most Beckett has ever made for one season, having been paid $10.5 million this season, and $9.5 million in 2007, both of which were the products of the three-year, $30 million extension he signed in 2006.
PEDROIA IS IN THE ZONE
Dustin Pedroia is having a rough road trip... offensively.
In 23 at-bats through the swing’s first six games, he has managed just two singles and three walks. His .290 batting average is the lowest since just prior to the All-Star break.
That, however, doesn’t tell the complete story of Pedroia’s contributions, as the first inning of Sunday’s game suggested.
With runners on first and second, nobody out and Lester admittedly not toting his best stuff, Paul Konerko lofted a fly ball into shallow right field. At first glance it appeared as though as least one run would score and the White Sox’ hit parade that had rolled through Red Sox pitching the previous two days wasn’t about to stop.
But along came the ’08 American League Gold Glove-winning second baseman. Pedroia raced back, reached out on the full run, snagged the pop-up, and immediately, without setting himself, whipped the ball into shortstop Alex Gonzalez for the inning-changing double play.
“I know Pedey didn’t get any hits but he probably saves the game in the first inning,” Francona told reporters. “At best, we’re looking at bases loaded, nobody out because I think everybody in the ballpark thought the ball was probably falling. Podsednik probably scores and we’re looking at a full-fledged rally with nobody out. To me, that was probably the play of the game and we’re five minutes into the game.”
The play was hardly an aberration.
Pedroia hasn’t made an error since July 29, and has just six on the season (his total for both ’07 and ’08).
Health is one factor in identifying the second baseman’s recent run of defensive excellence (he was more banged up than most know throughout the dog days). But the addition of shortstop Alex Gonzalez hasn’t hurt either.
“If you talk to Pedroia he’s pretty happy with the combination,” said Red Sox first base and infield coach Tim Bogar. “I think they’ve worked together quite well pretty quick.”
The double-play by Pedroia and his shortstop Sunday was the 11th since they’ve been together, while the second baseman’s zone rating has jumped up from .832 before Gonzalez to .857 after his new middle-infield partner’s arrival.
LOWELL KEEPS ON TRUCKING
Mike Lowell continued to make Francona’s decision difficult when it comes to who will play coming down the stretch.
Sunday, Lowell's most recent resume-builder came in the form of his 17th homer of the season, a two-run shot that got the Red Sox out in front for the first time in the series.
Since coming off the 15-day disabled list on July 17, the third baseman is hitting .328 with seven homers and 28 RBI. (He has also made just one error during the span.) It is the second-most productive clip on the team in that stretch, behind only Kevin Youkilis (.331).
“It’s been hard because it’s something that I’m definitely not used to doing,” Lowell told reporters. “There definitely are days where you feel like your rhythm isn’t the same. I think any time you feel good at the plate, you want to keep going back out there because you’re in that rhythm and you want to sustain it as much as possible. I don’t know, I’m trying to prepare myself as if I’m playing every day. I know it seems a little foolish but you almost have to trick yourself at the plate because I don’t want to lose the way I’m feeling. I still feel really good at the plate but it’s something really different for me.”
Meanwhile, the player for whom Lowell is often bumped out of the lineup, catcher Jason Varitek, has hit just .161 since July 17, and has had one multi-hit game since July 7.
Since the Martinez trade altered the dynamic of who plays where and when, the Red Sox are 8-9 with Varitek in the lineup, 12-13 with Lowell playing, and 18-15 with Martinez in the mix.
DAISUKE IS ALMOST BACK
Prior to Sunday’s game, Terry Francona announced that Daisuke Matsuzaka will pitch in one more rehab start – for either Single A Salem or Single A Greenville – Wednesday.
Matsuzaka, who was thought to have a chance at making either a Sept. 9 or 10 start for the Red Sox, said he was not surprised by the plan, which will give Paul Byrd at least one more start.
“Physically I think that I’m in a good spot and I think I’m ready to come back right now,” Matsuzaka told reporters through translator Masa Hoshino. “Since going on the DL this time around we’ve moved at a very conservative pace and there’s no need to rush things right now at the tail-end of it all. I’m going to get one more game, hopefully get some more pitches and some more innings and some more work in at the minor league level. That’s a decision that’s been made by the ballclub and I’m prepared to follow it.”