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.