So that settles that.
There are still four games to go in the regular season, and included therein are one more start for Jake Peavy (Wednesday), Clay Buchholz (Friday), and Jon Lester (Saturday), so don't expect John Farrell to divulge how he plans to deploy his starting pitchers in the playoffs until he sees how each of his hurlers comes through those outings. Nor should he.
There's really no sense in announcing the schedule any sooner -- even if John Lackey's performance Tuesday night in Denver showed that there's really not much to decide.
Roughed up by the Rockies, Lackey surrendered three homers and four runs over six innings, a stark difference from the two-hitter he tossed in his previous start, but hardly an unforeseen juxtaposition. In taking his 13th loss, the right-hander's ERA on the road this season spiked to 4.48 -- more than two runs worse than the 2.47 he's posted at Fenway Park, where he's allowed almost half as many earned runs (49-25) in just 7.1 fewer innings.
With the Sox' magic number to ensure themselves home-field advantage for the Division Series sitting at 2 with four games to play, it's more than likely they'll play their first two playoff games in Boston. And so, given Lackey's relative struggles anywhere else, and given the emergence of a clear choice to lead the way, there's really no decision to make. Here's what the rotation should look like (assuming that between now and Sunday there's some combination of Red Sox wins and Tigers losses that adds to two):
Game 1 (and 5) -- Jon Lester
He's allowed three runs or less in nine straight starts, six of which saw him allow zero or one run over at least seven innings. The Lester of the last two months is the Lester the Sox thought they had when they installed him as their opening day starter, and but for a bumpy month in the middle it's the Lester they've received. Take away the seven starts from May 20-June 21, and his ERA the rest of the year is 2.79, so over his 25 other outings he's pitched at a level akin to the top five starters in the American League. The Sox should be confident in asking him to set the tone in the opener.
Game 2 -- John Lackey
The big righty has allowed at least four runs in eight starts this season, six of which have come on the road. Conversely, he's had eight starts in which he's allowed one run or less, and seven of them have come at home. Looking specifically at potential opponents, too, three of his worst starts this season have come at Tampa Bay (8.10 ERA over two starts) and Texas (5.40 ERA, 1.80 WHIP in five innings). In terms of places he's pitched more than three times, those are also Lackey's two worst ballparks in terms of ERA over the course of his career. He's been better at Cleveland and Detroit, which are the two other realistic destinations for the Sox in the ALDS -- but given a chance to let him play to his strength at Fenway, there's no need to consider anything else.
Game 3 -- Clay Buchholz
If Buchholz is healthy, the case could made that he should start Game 1. Based on pure ability, he'd get the nod over Lackey in Game 2. But Lackey's splits mean Buchholz makes more sense in Game 3 -- and deference to Lackey's limitations isn't the only reason, either. The third game in a best of five is hugely pivotal. It's either a chance to put a team away, a chance to stay alive, or a chance to move ahead after splitting the first two games. To have Buchholz available for that important opportunity is a luxury for the Sox for that reason, and for the fact it gives them a chance to match their opponents. If the wild card team that advances uses its ace to win that play-in game, it'll most likely bring that ace back in Game 3. Meanwhile, if the opponent is Detroit, the Tigers will likely have either Anibal Sanchez or Justin Verlander on the mound that day. By sending a guy with a 1.60 ERA out to confront that challenge on the other side, the Sox can fight fire with fire. Plus, his ERA slides to 0.95 on the road.
Game 4 -- Jake Peavy
His 12.10 postseason ERA belies his competitive fire, but that number reflects on two outings, and both were at least six years ago. The bigger concern for the Sox is having the bullpen ready when Peavy gets into the middle innings, as the OPS of opposing hitters jumps from .632 to .795 when the righty gets to 100 pitches. Depending how early that point comes, Ryan Dempster could almost become a piggyback starter in that case.
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