On baseball

Amid this messy ending, there are things to tidy up

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / October 1, 2009

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The last five days of the 2009 season. Who cares?

Josh Beckett cares, because he’ll pitch Saturday to show his bosses that his sore back won’t be a problem in the playoffs.

Jon Lester cares, because in his start tonight, he needs to alleviate fears about the contusion he sustained on his quadriceps when Melky Cabrera’s liner hit him last Friday night.

Clay Buchholz, Sunday’s starter, cares, because he stunk in his last outing.

Daisuke Matsuzaka cares, because he’s trying to be Boston’s X factor in the postseason.

Mike Lowell cares, because he just had another Synvisc/cortisone shot to help his hip feel better for the postseason.

So it isn’t five days of playing out the string. There are things that need to be checked off.

Asked about the final five days and how a player’s performance could change the Sox’ thinking, general manager Theo Epstein said, “It could impact the 25th spot, perhaps. It’s one of probably a dozen factors that will go into that decision.

“The way this month has evolved, playing the percentages, it’s looked for a while like we were going to play the Angels, so we’ve had some time to get a head start on planning and thoughts about roster construction and pitching and, most importantly, advance scouting. So that process now just continues.’’

It’s five days of figuring out whether Jed Lowrie is your extra infielder over Chris Woodward or if Nick Green could possibly return from his back problem. The Sox played Lowrie at third base last night and he batted lefthanded. There’s a method to their madness.

They also played Joey Gathright and Josh Reddick. Both can run. Gathright is considered one of the fastest players in baseball. So if you’re looking for a guy who can pinch run - the Dave Roberts effect - it would be Gathright. Yet Reddick is young and can probably do more offensively. There’s something to be said for the youthful exuberance that Jacoby Ellsbury brought to the Red Sox in the 2007 postseason.

There’s also Brian Anderson, a more experienced player and a righthanded hitter. But Rocco Baldelli is also a righthanded-hitting outfielder.

Jonathan Papelbon said he has to make sure he gets his work in, but that won’t necessarily mean having to pitch a lot over the next few days.

“Every other day would be fine with me,’’ said Papelbon.

The Red Sox have their roster 99 percent set in their mind by now. As Epstein pointed out, they’ve pretty much known whom they were going to play for some time. They know the Angels like the back of their hands. So now it’s about matchups and trying to figure out things like whether they need a long reliever - which they didn’t in last year’s Division Series - and how much they trust Buchholz and Matsuzaka not to tax the bullpen.

The Sox don’t seem to care how far they finish behind the Yankees or whether they finish the season strong.

“It would be nice if every player on the roster got a hit in his last at-bat or put up a zero in his last inning,’’ said Epstein, “but anecdotally, and based on the large body of evidence, it really doesn’t matter.

“Even from a team standpoint, anecdotally and if you look at all the data that’s out there, even finishing strong over the last weeks, two weeks, month, it actually has no bearing whatsoever on how the team performs in October.

“We all want to finish strong. It feels better. But the difference between how you feel and what actually matters, if you look at it, I’m sure there’s evidence of teams finishing strong and going on to win the World Series. But for every one of those examples, there’s an example of a team finishing strong and getting swept, or a team that lost 15 of its last 18 going into October and winning the World Series.

“So if you break down the numbers, there’s simply no correlation.’’

In other words, Epstein isn’t concerned that the Sox will forget how to win (they lost their sixth straight last night). He feels he has a good team. Nothing that has happened over the past couple of weeks, other than injuries, has taken away from that.

“I feel like the last week or 10 days, ‘Oh no, they’re limping in, they’re backing in again,’ ’’ said Epstein. “All that doesn’t really mean anything. All that matters is how good are we and how are we going to play in October, and I think we’re good. I think we’re a really good club.

“How we’re going to play in October, nobody can answer that. The track record of a lot of these players is that they answer the bell when it matters most. We’ll see if they do or if they don’t. I hope we do, but that’s not based on a feeling any one person has at the end of the year. It’s based on how good we are and whether we play well when it matters most.’’

Last night’s 12-0 loss to Toronto was abysmal. An embarrassment.

“It’s not going to affect next week,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “Still, terrible night, and we always want to play well, regardless of who pitches and who plays. That didn’t happen tonight. Don’t try to lessen how we feel about a loss. That’s a tough night. Any time we get to Dusty Brown pitching, that’s a tough night.’’

Tim Wakefield lasted only three innings and allowed three home runs. Manny Delcarmen continued his late-season struggles, giving up three hits (including a home run) and two runs in an inning.

Francona wanted to stay away from Daniel Bard, Billy Wagner, and Papelbon, as part of the master plan to rest his bullpen. Which is why Brown pitched.

It was another long, lousy game.

You wonder, are the Red Sox good enough, as Epstein says, to turn it back on?

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