ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - It's the pitching, Larry.
Kevin Youkilis or Carl Crawford? Who gets the biggest ovation Monday night in Boston. The smart money is on Youkilis. Both return to Fenway Park, but only one returns to the Red Sox. We'll see how effective Larry Lucchino's love-letter to the masses was when the gates open at Fenway Park and the pink-hatted lemmings stream in early to absorb some bronzed history, load up on souvenirs and drop $9 bills on beer.
Bobby Valentine (yes, he's still here) make it clear Sunday that any issues between him and Youkilis were on Youk. By the way, not that it matters except it's all that matters, the Red Sox got solid starting pitching from Franklin Morales, Clay Buchholz, and - stop the servers - Josh Beckett to take two of three from the Rays and set the table for Monday's second-half Fenway opener against Youkilis and the White Sox. Boston's starting pitching against the nearly-Class AAA Rays (17.1 innings, 7 earned runs) was surprisingly above-average and will ultimately determine this team's fate.
Youkilis' standing ovation tonight should be cause for another plaque to be placed somewhere out in right field. Several thousand Red Sox fans got the jump on Larry's plea to arrive early at Fenway and re-claimed Tropicana Field as the original Fenway South over the weekend. The Rays fanbase - at least the smattering who braved the sunny weather and 90-degree temperatures to make it to the Trop - seems to be comprised of the type of folks who would buy 100 percent into what Lucchino was pitching in his email plea. It was telling that the only people omitted from Lucchino's email overture Friday were the manager and the starting pitching staff. Valentine effectively managed the bullpen all weekend and deserves much credit for its success this season. Speaking of plaques, the Rays have erected a "162 Landing" in left field commemorating the final night the 2011 season and the spot where Evan Longoria's playoff-clinching home run landed. It includes a timeline of Sept. 28-29 and features a few snapshots from the events in Baltimore. It's a must-see along with Dinosaur World and Casey Anthony's house on your next trip to Florida. By the way, it looks like Longoria might not be back until 2013.
Act II -- Scene I of the 2012 season demonstrated what can go right with the Red Sox once all the pieces are in place. Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury were in the lineup together on Sunday for the first time since April 13. Thanks in part to that fact, the Red Sox had plenty of hittable pitches from James Shields and hammered then all over the Trop. It always helps when you can get those guys with the $156 million contracts in the lineup. In case the rest of the American League hasn't realized it - don't be throwing Will Middlebrooks any breaking balls when he's up with the bases loaded. That trio went 8-for-13 Sunday with 3 RBI.
Carl Crawford for Daniel Nava in the lineup might be at best a push for now. Nava crushed the go-ahead home run off Sheilds in the fifth inning on Sunday. That should be a nice bookend to his stint with the Red Sox - which began with a grand-slam in his first at bat. And the reality-check hitting Pedro Ciriaco should come to end on Thursday with Dustin Pedroia's hopeful return to the roster.
The Red Sox will have no trouble scoring runs against mediocre pitching the rest of the season with their intact lineup. Their rotation, on the other hand, has barely kept up against mediocre lineups and gets routinely crushed against real teams like the Yankees. All three starters over the weekend pitched well enough to win, with Beckett showing surprisingly - at least for 2012 - tenacity for his performance after the first inning on Sunday. Beckett opened up like he had a 4 p.m. tee time. After getting smacked for three runs in the first, Mike Aviles' home run in the second gave the Red Sox some breathing room and Beckett and the Red Sox offense took over from there.
The maddening component for Beckett - at least in terms of his on-field performance - is his inability to pitch deep into games. Beckett was winless in his previous six starts before Sunday has still not thrown a pitch in the seventh inning since June 11. Sunday it was the flu medication which caused him to take up to 45 seconds in between pitches in the first inning and leave after the sixth with a four-run lead after 104 pitches. Beckett managed to get himself booed by Red Sox and Rays fans alike early in this one. One young Rays fan sitting nearby this correspondent was timing Beckett's inter-pitch delay with his iPhone's stopwatch. He might have been better off using a sundial, hourglass and tidal chart.
Excuses coming soon to a box score near you for Beckett's lack of endurance: jet lag, babysitting duties and the Popeye's grand opening in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Maybe Beckett needs to be immortalized along with Michael Jordan (flu 1998), Curt Schilling (bloody sock 2004/$75 million cash burn 2012), Paul Pierce (wheelchair 2008) and LeBron James (cramp 2012) on the list of all-time awe-inspiring performances with his line of 6IP, 3ER, 8H, 7K and 2BB.
Jon Lester hasn't fared much better in the endurance department, pitching just 22.2 innings in his past four starts. The rest of the rotation (Felix Doubront, Aaron Cook and Morales) has been effective of late, but doesn't instill much confidence in a seven-game series against the Yankees if the Red Sox are indeed going to be playing "October baseball" as Lucchino longed for in his email.
The "Red Sox Comeback of the Year Award" might be the fact that Beckett salvaged a win on Sunday. Or it could be the performance of none other than Mark "Plutonium" Melancon. Since his return to the Red Sox on June 11 - Melancon has allowed just one earned run in 13.2 innings with 12 strikeouts. He came in Sunday with a runner on third after Aviles' spectacular cutoff play nailed Ben Zobrist trying to extend his single in the seventh and clamped off the bleeding before it started by getting five perfect outs. His ERA has fallen from 49.50 in April before he was sent down to a just a Lackey-esque 6.23.
Distractions like that aren't nearly as much fun as condescending, out-of-touch emails from team ownership or the spat between Youkilis and his former manager. Speaking of sideshows, Youkilis will be just another opposing player after his first plate appearance tonight. And Crawford's effect on this team will be limited for the foreseeable future - except when it comes to the crushing impact of his contract.
If the Red Sox starting rotation can build on its solid performances over the weekend in St. Petersburg, however, then we might actually have a story.
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