Decisions, decisions

No sweat for Francona: Matsuzaka gets the nod

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / October 9, 2008
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Before the champagne stopped spraying in the Red Sox clubhouse Monday night, Terry Francona knew his pitching rotation for the next series. Francona, by now, is an old hand at setting up his staff, and he has come to believe the simplest answer is usually the best.

Guided by simplicity and granting equitable rest to his starters, Francona never changed his mind from then until shortly before noon yesterday, when he announced the Sox' rotation for the American League Championship Series.

Daisuke Matsuzaka will start Game 1 tomorrow night against the Tampa Bay Rays, followed by Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Tim Wakefield in Games 2, 3, and 4. The first three starters will pitch in the same order for Games 5, 6, and 7, if necessary.

Since the Red Sox' top three starters are each scheduled to pitch twice over seven games, Francona believes the order in which they pitch matters little. His mission then became allocating each pitcher the right amount of rest.

Matsuzaka last pitched Friday in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Angels, giving him six days of rest. Beckett last pitched Sunday, giving him five days of rest to recover from his first start in 13 days, a layoff caused by a right oblique strain. Lester pitched Monday and will also receive one more day of rest than usual.

"That's the way we're set up to go," Francona said. "The reasoning is actually pretty simple. You could get into a lot of details, but there really didn't need to be. The way it lined up was appropriate. Again, for us, those three will pitch twice if it goes to seven. In the end, as long as they're pitching, the order isn't as important. So then you go, 'OK, what's best for them?'

"It gives people rest - not too much rest, not too little. This is probably the best way. We didn't want one going on eight [days' rest], one guy going on regular. Keep everybody somewhat in line. Rest at this time of year is huge. We'll take advantage of it while trying not to give too much."

Francona did not stress going with his best pitchers early in the series, his logic simple: If you need a great pitcher to win, say, Game 6, you're doomed, anyway - better to provide proper rest. He felt no need to throw Lester - the dominant force of the ALDS who pitched 14 innings without surrendering an earned run - on four days of rest in Game 2 and ensure he would pitch twice in the first six games.

"It's best-of-seven. It's not best-of-six," Francona said. "The idea is to win the series, not win Game 6. I never quite understood that philosophy. Our idea, the way we set it up, is to win the series. If it's such a big deal to pitch [Lester] in Game 6, what happens [in] Game 7? We'll give the guys the rest they need and set it up for the entire series. And then if you're losing, don't panic."

Francona wanted to give Beckett an extra day of rest after his last start, but he also emphasized starting Matsuzaka was not an indictment of Beckett's health. He felt Beckett's atypical playoff performance in Game 3 of the ALDS, allowing four runs over a sluggish five innings, owed more to rust than diminished ability. "We don't need to run away from Beckett," Francona said. "We need to get him on a run."

Francona considered choosing Paul Byrd over Wakefield as the Sox' fourth starter, but called picking Wakefield "an easy decision when you look at all the dynamics of it." Pitching Wakefield requires inserting backup catcher Kevin Cash, making a potential Wakefield relief appearance complicated.

"Byrd can probably be used more flexibly out of the bullpen," Francona said. "When you line up Wake, you put him with Cash, you see how far you can go, and then you make determinations with how to go with the bullpen as opposed to trying to bring Wake in the middle of the game, knowing that he's possibly throwing to a catcher you haven't had."

Byrd, then, will be the Red Sox' designated long reliever. Byrd did not pitch against the Angels, but he warmed up twice and has repeatedly stated his comfort with a bullpen role. Byrd is 7-4 with a 4.62 ERA in 115 innings over 88 career relief appearances.

"Just give me a couple minutes and I'll be ready to go," Byrd said. "I appreciate the fact that they were going to pitch me."

The Rays also announced their rotation yesterday. They will counter with, in order, James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine. Rays manager Joe Maddon indicated his first three starters would also pitch Games 5, 6, and 7, in the same order.

The rotation set, Francona and the Sox will now turn to answering their next two questions - whether to carry an 11th pitcher (they carried 10 in the ALDS) and how to account for the absence of Mike Lowell, whose injured right hip forced him off the ALCS roster.

Francona and his staff will convene today in Tampa to find solutions. If the Sox add an 11th pitcher, it would presumably be Mike Timlin, who was left off the ALDS roster. Timlin shortly before noon yesterday said he had not been told his status and "I don't assume anything."

The Red Sox will likely move Kevin Youkilis from first to third to replace Lowell, as they did in Game 4 of the ALDS. Mark Kotsay has played just 34 of his 1,450 career games at first base, but the Red Sox have reason to feel comfortable with his defense, which they consider superior to that of the less mobile Sean Casey.

Kotsay proved them correct with two key defensive plays in Game 4 of the ALCS. In the sixth inning, Vladimir Guerrero squibbed a popup in foul territory near the Red Sox' on-deck circle. Kotsay bolted for it, waved off Lester, and made a sliding, backhanded snare. The next inning, he backpedaled behind first and smoothly made a tricky catch.

Still, despite Casey not playing in the ALDS, Francona is waiting to announce firmly his plans.

"I don't have that answer yet," Francona said. "We need to look at some of our stuff and sit through our meetings. We'll have hopefully a much better idea how we'll do it. I need to look at that a little bit more in depth."

American League Championship Series
Series Overview
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