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Rotational force

Sox' five are spinning some beauties

Yankee lefty Kei Igawa is in the minors for seasoning. Yankee lefty Kei Igawa is in the minors for seasoning. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)

TORONTO -- While the Yankees giddily start the countdown on Roger Clemens's return -- with a June 1 date in Boston a real possibility -- the Red Sox roll into the Rogers Centre ready to throw the American League's most dominating pitcher against the reeling Blue Jays.

By one measure, that would be Josh Beckett, the majors' only six-game winner, who opens the series tonight trying to stay unbeaten against a team that just lost all six games of a border crossing, three in Cleveland, then three in Texas. This will be Beckett's first start of the season here, a place where he gave up seven home runs in just 12 innings last season, including three in one game May 30.

This season, Beckett has allowed just one home run in 39 2/3 innings, far off the 36-homer pace of last season, the worst of his career. And the swagger he developed when he was known as "Kid Heat" back in Texas is back.

"He's got that cocky [attitude], which I love," manager Terry Francona said. "For a while last year, he didn't have that, and we noticed it.

"He's a great kid. When you say something to him, you're going to get something back, but that's when he's feeling good about himself. He should feel good about himself.

"He's working hard, he's getting results, and whether he loses his next game or not, that's not going to derail what type of pitcher he is."

But as good as Beckett has been, you can make a compelling case that the best starting pitcher in the league has been knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who is scheduled to start the series finale Thursday night after Daisuke Matsuzaka goes tomorrow. Wakefield doesn't have the gaudy won-lost record -- he's 3-3, in part because he gets an average of 2.8 runs of support while Beckett has been getting 8.28 -- but he is among the league leaders in several important categories.

Wakefield's earned run average is 2.11, second only to Oakland's Dan Haren (1.75). Opponents are batting a league-low .197 against him, with lefties hitting just .125 (6 for 48). The opposition slugging percentage of .303 is also the lowest in the league, Wakefield having allowed just nine doubles and two home runs in 38 1/3 innings.

Not bad for a guy who, when spring training started, was slotted as the No. 5 starter, behind Curt Schilling, Beckett, Matsuzaka, and Jonathan Papelbon, who since has moved back into the closer's role.

The talent, depth, and health of the Sox' starting rotation is an obvious reason for the team's fast start, and the reason they weren't going to match the Yankees's prorated $28.022 million deal for Clemens. The prorated $18 million they offered Clemens last week was less than the prorated $22 million the Astros gave him last summer. That would suggest the ardor with which the Sox pursued the Rocket had cooled since last year, but was enough -- agent Randy Hendricks text-messaged Yankees general manager Brian Cashman last week that he was in Boston -- that the Yankees had to pay top dollar.

"When you're talking about wanting to bring a guy like that in, you've got to understand you're lockering with someone you're voting off the island, in a sense," Schilling said Sunday after beating the Twins, 4-3, in the Metrodome. "The [Yankees] have been crushed with injuries -- they have a huge need for him over there -- and we haven't [had injuries]. We've been pitching our butts off. I like our chances."

Besides, if Astros first baseman Lance Berkman is to be believed, the Sox had as much chance of landing Clemens as the Astros had of luring him back.

"With this Rocket situation," Berkman told the Houston Chronicle, "there are two kinds of people: people that are not surprised and morons.

"Where else was he going to go? He wasn't going to come back here. From the moment [Andy] Pettitte signed with the Yankees, there was 100 percent certainty that that's where he was going."

The Sox, who went through 14 starting pitchers last season -- their most since 1966 -- and 28 pitchers in all, are well aware that reinforcements will be required at some point, but so far, the five members of their rotation have yet to miss a start. Last night, the Yankees used their 10th starting pitcher, call-up Matt DeSalvo, a major league record for the first 30 games of a season.

The Yankees have had disabling injuries to Chien-Ming Wang (hamstring), Mike Mussina (hamstring), Jeff Karstens (fractured fibula), Phil Hughes (hamstring), and Carl Pavano (elbow). Yesterday, they sent Kei Igawa, the Japanese import in whom they invested $46 million, to the minor leagues.

Another division rival, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, also have used just five starting pitchers, but Edwin Jackson is 0-5 with a 6.99 ERA, Casey Fossum is 2-2 with a 7.34 ERA, and Jae Seo is 1-2 with an 8.19 ERA.

Baltimore just lost lefthander Adam Loewen with a stress fracture in his elbow and hasn't had Jaret Wright, who has a sore shoulder. The Blue Jays' John Thomson started the season with a bad shoulder, and they recently placed Gustavo Chacin, who outdueled Matsuzaka during the Sox' previous visit here, on the DL with a sore shoulder.

Schilling has pitched into the seventh in his last six starts. Beckett has done it four times, Wakefield and Matsuzaka three times. No. 5 starter Julian Tavarez went six innings Saturday, his longest outing of the season.

Their ability to go deep into games is why the Sox bullpen has pitched a league-low 77 1/3 innings, compared with the league-high 118 innings by Yankees relievers. The Sox bullpen also has a league-best 2.21 ERA, a full run better than the runner-up Twins (3.26). A rested pen is a more effective pen, which is not to diminish the early-season brilliance of Hideki Okajima and Papelbon.

So, Clemens won't be walking through the Sox' clubhouse door. But they are confident Jon Lester, who was 7-2 as a rookie last summer when he was shut down because of cancer, will be back in a matter of weeks. Sidelined by an elbow cramp, he is scheduled to resume playing catch today.

And if the need arises, they also have rotation depth in Kyle Snyder and Devern Hansack, with righty David Pauley (24 strikeouts and five walks in 30 innings) and lefty Kason Gabbard (2-1, 2.70) pitching well in Pawtucket and highly touted prospect Clay Buchholz in Portland. No seven-time Cy Young Award winners among them, but it also should be noted that Matsuzaka has yet to hit his stride , either.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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