On Baseball

If team can stay on track, Game 1 starter pick a real horse race

By Nick Cafardo
August 22, 2011

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - If you ask Red Sox players and personnel who, between Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, should be considered the team’s No. 1 starter and get the ball for Game 1 of the playoffs, the answer is universal.

“Doesn’t matter,’’ said one Sox pitcher. “They’re both going to pitch and they’re both really good. You can flip a coin on that one. Just pick one of them blindfolded. And I know neither one of them would care if the other got the nod. But that’s far off.’’

And that’s why the subject isn’t a popular one. On Aug. 22, nobody wants to get into who’s pitching Game 1 of the playoffs. But that’s what the next few outings for each pitcher will determine.

With the Rays playing superbly, the Sox’ 7 1/2-game lead in the wild-card standings isn’t as solid as we think. Then again, it would take a monumental meltdown for the Sox not to make the playoffs. And if you can beat the Royals three out of four games with four starters (Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, and J.D. Drew) out of the lineup, you’re probably in good shape when most or all of them come back.

So, it’s a decision manager Terry Francona, pitching coach Curt Young, and the front office likely will have to make.

Beckett has been the horse, with the flashy ERA (2.46) and, at times, dominating stuff. While he’s not the pitcher who once threw 97-98 miles per hour and overpowered hitters, he’s become a terrific veteran and has a strong postseason résumé.

Beckett is 1-1 in August with a 4.13 ERA. His ERA is the highest it’s been since April 27, and it’s risen from 2.07 on July 23. But you can’t say he’s slumping. Beckett, who has logged 157 innings, has pitched deep into most games.

Lester has been solid in his last two starts, allowing one run and three hits in each, going seven innings against Tampa Bay Aug. 16 and six against the Royals yesterday.

While Lester hasn’t been as dominant as Beckett, his ERA is down to 3.16. Both he and Beckett are able to keep the Sox in games when they don’t have their best stuff.

Lester’s control was a bit off yesterday (four walks) and he got his pitch count up as the young-but-patient Royals laid off some of his pitches. He may not have had great fastball command, but Lester threw his curveball behind in the count and also had an effective changeup, which kept him in the game.

Lester (13-6) was asked about his ability to pitch effectively but in different ways.

“I wouldn’t say I’m approaching games differently, but as far as game plans go, some games you can put your hat on the mound and you’re going to win,’’ he said, referencing his run support. “But in games like today, every inning is tough. Games like this are nice to win. The nice thing about pitching in this organization is you’re going to win a lot of games.’’

Lester acknowledged having a good curveball, but “I didn’t really have that putaway pitch I’ve had in past games.’’

And that’s what No. 1 pitchers like Lester and Beckett do, they win even when they’re not at their best.

One would think the decision as to who goes in Game 1 will be based on several factors. First, the opponent. Texas is a really good righthanded-hitting team, and one would think Beckett would get Game 1 against them. If it’s the Tigers, they’re a very good lefthanded-hitting team (.280), and perhaps Lester would get the nod. But Texas and Detroit are two of the top hitting teams in baseball, so whether it’s a lefthander or righthander may not matter.

“As good as Lester is, I think Beckett is considered the leader of that pitching staff,’’ said one National League scout. “Wasn’t that the debate early this season? Can Beckett come off a bad season and lead that pitching staff? Well, I think he’s done that. For me, he’d have to be your No. 1 game starter because it seems to me that all other factors are fairly equal.

“Either way, that’s a pretty nasty 1-2 punch. You’ve got some good ones in the playoffs, and maybe this one isn’t as publicized, but that’s as good a 1-2 combo as you’ve got. Philly’s got [Roy] Halladay and [Cliff] Lee and they keep going with that rotation, but Boston can match up, for sure.’’

Beckett and Lester are going to have to face the cream of the hitting crop. If it’s Texas, there’s Michael Young, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli, and Adrian Beltre from the right side, and Josh Hamilton from the left. If it’s Detroit, there’s righthanded-hitting Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, and Delmon Young, who has found new life, and switch-hitting Victor Martinez.

Beckett is 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA against the Tigers in two starts this season, and 3-2 with a 2.50 ERA in six starts in his career. He hasn’t fared quite as well vs. Texas - 2-2 with a 5.53 ERA in seven lifetime starts. Lester is 3-1 with a 3.48 ERA against the Rangers and 0-2 with a 5.89 ERA against the Tigers. Suffice it to say, these teams are challenging opponents for these two pitchers.

The other factors will include which of the two is on the better run at the time, which is fresher, and a projection as to which of the two you’d want pitching what games later in the series. Sometimes you can overanalyze all of those factors.

The trick for the Sox is to secure a playoff berth and then be able to rest the two, giving them extra days between starts a couple of times before the regular season ends.

Beckett and Lester shoulder the weight of the staff. They know that from the right and left, they are the best of the rotation and need to dominate the big games. Neither shies away from that. And you can bet that as competitive as they are, both would love that Game 1 nod, but neither will make it an issue when one gets chosen over the other.

“It’s probably a bigger issue in the media than it will be in here,’’ said one Sox player. “Whoever pitches first, pitches first. No big deal. The important thing is we win the games, and with those two going we always feel we can win the games.’’

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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