No sooner had Jason Bay's hand slid over home plate - the throw from right field coming too late - than the questions started. Though the Red Sox have reached the American League Championship Series for the fourth time in six years, there have been more travails for this year's team than others in recent memory, especially the 2007 version that seemed to sail inexorably to the World Series.
"It seemed like things might have cruised along a little easier last year from an injury standpoint," said Mike Lowell after Monday night's 3-2 victory that clinched the Division Series against the Angels. "This was a battle.
"You can't be anything but proud of those guys."
So, on the way to St. Petersburg, Fla., for Game 1 against the Rays Friday, the Sox have decisions to make, in the rotation and on the roster. That fact was made all the more acute when the Sox announced Monday that Lowell was removed from the ALDS roster, rendering him ineligible for the ALCS. That leaves a spot to be filled among some machinations in the final 25.
But first, there's the matter of the rotation. With a seven-game series it is necessary to use four starters, unlike the ALDS, in which the Sox could rely on Jon Lester to get two of the three wins.
With Lester having pitched Monday, he would be going on short rest in Game 1 of the ALCS, something the Sox are unlikely to do. That leaves Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka as possibilities for Friday. Beckett would be pitching on normal rest after his Sunday night start, and Matsuzaka would have six days of rest.
Last year, there would not have even been a question. This year, things are different. Not only because Beckett has had a significantly more difficult season, but also because of injury concerns. Beckett was pushed back from starting the first game of the ALDS after he strained his right oblique in a side session Sept. 26. That left him with the Game 3 start, one that was startling in its tedium and, sometimes, its ineffectiveness.
"I didn't see any backlash from his oblique, but he did a lot to be able to even take that ball for us," Jason Varitek said after Game 3. "We all commend him, because he was hurting. We all tip our cap for him even to make that start."
Beckett's five-inning, four-run performance in Game 3 raised the possibility that he struggled because of injury - despite his repeatedly saying that his health was "fine" before and after the game - as well as the possibility that rust played into an outing in which he gave up nine hits and four walks.
So it seems likely that the Sox would go with Matsuzaka in Game 1, followed either by Beckett on an extra day's rest or Lester on normal rest. The choice would be between Lester's utter dominance this postseason (and all season, really) and an extra day's rest for a pitcher who went past the 200-inning mark for the first time in his career. Not that it seems to be slowing him down. That would leave Beckett and Lester (or Lester and Beckett) as the options for Games 6 and 7.
It's likely that, given the catching situation, the choice for Game 4 would be Tim Wakefield over Paul Byrd. Manager Terry Francona has said he is loath to use Wakefield without using Kevin Cash at the same time, which limits the options for Wakefield out of the bullpen.
There are few movable parts on the roster as a whole. The pitching staff almost certainly will include Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield, Byrd, Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima, and Javier Lopez, the 10 who were on the ALDS roster. But there are fewer days off in the ALCS, with back-to-back games Friday and Saturday, and again Monday and Tuesday. That likely means an increase to 11 pitchers, with the possible addition of Mike Timlin.
Timlin could take the spot freed up by Lowell and filled, for one game, by Gil Velazquez. Or Timlin could take a spot potentially vacated by David Ross, the third catcher on the roster for the first round. Then again, Ross allows the Sox to do what they did in Sunday night's game, pinch hit for Varitek. Given Varitek's struggles offensively - .220 this season, .183 in September - having the additional catcher brings flexibility that the Sox might not need in the infield.
But the infield does change with Lowell out. There are options here, given that the Sox can use Kevin Youkilis at third base with either Mark Kotsay or missing man Sean Casey at first base, or keep Youkilis at first, move Jed Lowrie to third, and put Alex Cora at shortstop.
The matchups with the Rays should provide clues to which variation the Sox will use, though Francona seems to be especially comfortable with Kotsay at first base, a choice backed up by two stellar defensive plays by Kotsay in Game 4, along with a single to kick off the Sox' two-run fifth inning Monday.
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org