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Smoltz Makes ’09 Debut; Beckett and Big Papi Stay Hot While Lowell Stays Out

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Red Sox Record for the Week of June 22: 4-2

By the time the month of June ends, the Boston Red Sox will have two things: a healthy, veteran-heavy starting rotation and a first place finish atop the AL East, arguably the league’s most competitive division.

The long-awaited debut of John Smoltz, the first ever non-Atlanta Braves start of his 21-year career occurred last Thursday night in Washington, D.C. It was a mostly positive outing, as Smoltz pitched well in four of his five innings, striking out five and retiring his last eight batters. But the damage came quick and early, as he surrendered four runs in the first inning, giving up five total, along with seven hits, a walk, and HBP. The Nats eventually won this game 9-3 and Smoltz earned his first decision outside a Braves uniform, a loss.

Smoltz chalked up the rough first inning to raw nerves (which was both understandable and evident by his wiping of the forehead between at-bats), but he also threw only 12 fastballs in the 35-pitch first inning. When things went south early, he obviously didn’t trust his hard stuff, which topped out at 93 mph. As the game went on though, Smoltz found his groove and located all his pitches – his fastball, slider and curveball in particular – much better, and gave up only one run between innings two through five. He finished up that fifth inning and outing by striking out the side.

So while his game line doesn’t look impressive from a distance, Smoltz’s first outing was clearly one in which the numbers don’t tell the full story. In the larger context, it was a fine first step, considering that he hasn’t pitched a big league game since June 2008. It was also much better than his first outing as a closer in 2002 and initial return to the Braves rotation in 2005, when he couldn’t get out of the first and second innings, respectively. Smoltz’s next start is Tuesday in Baltimore.

The BoSox bats have quieted down of late, but the starting pitching, led by Jon Lester, Brad Penny, Tim Wakefield and Josh Beckett, has been mostly outstanding. Beckett, who is 5-1 with a 1.24 ERA since May 23, has separated himself from the pack with his recent outings and is pretty close to solidifying his spot on the AL All-Star roster as a result.

He currently owns a season-best 3.48 ERA and it is largely due to the fact that he has gone 16 innings in a row without giving up a run covering his last two starts, both against Atlanta. First was the CG shutout June 20, followed up by seven scoreless innings vs. the Braves on Friday, June 26, for which he earned his ninth win. Manager Terry Francona earned the 800th of his managerial career this night as well. In all, Beckett is truly pitching like the ace he’s paid to be.

While Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia’s bats have slowed down a bit over the last week or so, David Ortiz continues to beef up his average and power numbers from deplorable to somewhat respectable levels. His BA, which stood at an embarrassing .185 on May 31, is up to .220 going into Monday night, and he now has 8 HR and 35 RBI. And when called upon during interleague play on the road, the Sox superstar DH has handled first base duties efficiently as well. He didn’t make a single error there in six games played until Sunday afternoon in Atlanta.

Whether it is indeed the eye (drops) treatment that’s making Big Papi see the ball better or something else, the man has clearly turned a corner and there’s no looking back now. Francona now has enough confidence in him that he has moved Ortiz up from the six spot in the lineup to fifth (on Sunday) and on Smoltz’s debut last Thursday, cleanup, where he hadn’t batted since 2005. His OBP for June is nearing .400 and if his overall offensive numbers keep heading northward like this, before you know it, he’ll be back in the three spot, where he belongs.

Finally, the Sox head into the week with a three-game edge over New York and with relatively little trouble to talk about. This isn’t necessarily a surprise since the Sox are one of the best if not thee best team, top to bottom in the game right now. With Daisuke Matsuzaka weeks away from making his return, the only concerns on the injury front are Jed Lowrie and now Mike Lowell, who will likely sit out the current three-game series in Baltimore with a newly sore right hip.

Lowrie, who plays shortstop and third base, is rumored due back from the DL just before the All-Star break but could be activated sooner if the Synvisc shot Lowell took Monday to treat his sore hip doesn’t cure the pain and help him regain mobility. The Sox have until the start of this weekend to put him on the 15-day DL if they intend to get him rested and ready to start the season’s second half, which for Boston is July 17 in Toronto.

Knowing how cautious Francona is with players, if Lowell is any less than 95-100% pain-free, he will go to the DL before this time next week. If this should happen, it will be a big blow to the Sox offense, but it will also allow Lowrie the chance to again prove he can be a productive fill-in as he did last year in his rookie campaign. And if that doesn’t work or happen, the suddenly reliable Nick Green or Kevin Youkilis could play third (while veteran Mark Kotsay plays first base).

Whatever happens in the near future, GM Theo Epstein has built a deep enough pro team and farm system that the Sox can and in some cases already has addressed key injury or ineffectiveness issues in-house and still have one of baseball’s top records. Examples include Jeff Bailey at first base for a briefly injured Youkilis, Smoltz for Dice-K, and Green at short for Lowrie/Lugo. And Pawtucket pitcher Clay Buchholz, who has been lights out since the spring, hasn’t been needed to this point. Most other teams wish they could be this loaded, fortunate and successful to this point in the season.

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.
  • Tony

    Watching Papplebon make that stupid little face he makes when he stares in at the catcher, and then blow the rest of that 9 run lead was priceless.

  • http://lowposts.com/ ebooker

    Know what else is priceless? Sox-Haters..

  • Tony

    Well thanks, I agree.