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Wake And Byrd Are Back, Sox Add Wagner And Keep On Rolling

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Red Sox Record for the Week of August 24: 6-1

Sox fans will always have their worries and concerns. But as September comes upon us, a four-game lead in the Wild Card race (thanks to series wins versus the White Sox and Blue Bays last week) should feel pretty good right now.

Consider the Sox situation one month ago, when the team was in dire need of a boost offensively. Enter Victor Martinez. Mid-month, the Sox front office correctly decided infield defense needed improvement. Enter shortstop extraordinaire Alex Gonzalez. By its end, the Sox addressed pitching concerns at the back of the starting rotation and bullpen. Enter rookie Junichi Tazawa (up from the minors), 38-year-old veteran Paul Byrd (back from semi-retirement) and Billy Wagner (former closer acquired from the Mets last week). And with rosters expanding to 40 today, even more pitching depth is on its way to Boston.

GM Theo Epstein certainly made many other moves in August, of course (most of them temporary, to help an overtaxed bullpen and outfield). These moves are collectively paying off in terms of wins now –- the Sox have won 10 of its last 13 games going into September 1. And manager Terry Francona’s juggling of lineups and handling of the ever-changing pitching staff has been mostly successful to this point as well. In fact, the Sox offense, with all its regulars and quality backups — Casey Kotchman and Rocco Baldelli included — now healthy, ranks third in runs in all of baseball.

Perhaps just as important, Boston’s defense is playing as well now as it has all year long. The throw out at the plate of Toronto’s Travis Snider at Fenway last Friday night on a relay in the rain from Jason Bay to Alex Gonzalez to Jason Varitek (who blocked the plate perfectly) to preserve a 5-5 tie is but one example. [The Sox eventually won 6-5 and went on to sweep the three-game series over the weekend.]

Sox pitching, on the other hand, has been shaky lately and to me, the physical condition of pitchers like Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka are the main concerns for the Red Sox as we head into September. Dice-K, who has been undergoing a second Spring Training, got roughed up Sunday in Double-A Portland (five runs, 58 pitches in two IP) but will be back soon (around September 9). If his shoulder and right arm are healthy and strong as it reportedly is, all the Sox can ask of him is to make it through at least five or six IP without walking the ballpark and giving up more than four to five earned runs. But time isn’t on his side and if he can’t do that in his first two or three starts this month, he might as well just call it a year.

Tim Wakefield, meanwhile, made his first start since the All-Star break last Wednesday, with V-Mart catching him to near perfection (no passed balls). The goods news is that the knuckleballer had a quality start –- one run in seven innings. The bad news is that he was scratched from tonight’s outing due to recurring back pain, for which he got a cortisone shot to take care of Monday. He is expected to make his next start in about a week.

They way I see it, both pitchers remain question marks, but I have more faith in Wakefield than in Dice-K, because at least the problem with Wake isn’t his pitching arm but pains and aches in his 43-year-old body. The problem is, like Dice-K, time is not on his side to get back to midseason form. But if the pain goes away or Wake is able to pitch through it, he, along with Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and the steadily improving Clay Buchholz, will make a formidable staff for the stretch run, with only the fifth starter concern to solve (and plenty of candidates to solve it, including Byrd and Tazawa). True, Beckett has given up 20 runs in his last three starts, but he’s healthy and pitching late into games. Sox fans need not worry about him.

The bullpen, which got beat up in August in part due to ineffective starting pitching, should be in better shape as a result of the 40-man roster expansion and better starting pitching. Having a fresh veteran arm in the pen like Billy Wagner should pay dividends as well. And in a good sign of things to come, he struck out the side in his Sox debut versus Toronto Sunday afternoon as part of the Sox’s 7-0 win behind Byrd’s (1-0) own strong season debut.

Speaking of Wagner, Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon had some clearing up to do after telling Boston media over a week ago that the bullpen was fine the way it was and didn’t want it messed up with new faces -– Billy Wagner was only rumored to be coming to Boston at the time. He later clarified that he had no problem with having Billy Wagner as a teammate. Look, I love his attitude and play on the field like most Sox fans, but outside the lines, he says stuff that makes you scratch your head, including this: “When you acquire somebody [like Wagner], you have to get rid of somebody.”

Obviously he’s wrong. Did he really think Ramon Ramirez or other essential bullpen arms were on their way out with Wagner’s arrival? That’s a “pretty stupid comment to make,” as Curt Schilling would tell you. As it was, Brad Penny’s requested release last Thursday made room for Wagner on the roster, and though the veteran starter was scheduled to relieve Tazawa that night, he didn’t want to and thus, was gone long before game-time. Francona was left to use infielder Nick Green to pitch two innings as a result of Penny’s me-first attitude -– two SCORELESS innings, that is. But again, no one essential to the Sox bullpen success this year was or would’ve shipped out of Boston, Pap.

Will some bullpen roles change? It’s another concern of Pap’s but his job is definitely not in jeopardy. Wagner is likely here to help lessen the burden on fellow lefty Hideki Okajima and rookie Daniel Bard to get key outs in late innings. Ultimately, Terry Francona will decide how Wagner is used, not Papelbon and in the meantime he needs to just do his job as closer and let others do theirs.

And finally, Jacoby Ellsbury set a new Red Sox single season record August 25 with his 55th stolen base, breaking Tommy Harper’s 1973 record of 54. He was also named a finalist for the MLBPAA’s Heart & Hustle Award, which will be handed out November 6. Congrats to him on these prestigious accomplishments.

Author’s Note: Stay tuned for a special edition of “Dead Red” later this week, in which I recount my weekend experience covering Red Sox Single-A affiliate, the Lowell Spinners.

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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.