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Can Sox be kings if they're without ace?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 29, 2008 08:22 AM

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But it all starts with Beckett. It has been that way since Nov. 2005, when the Sox acquired Mike Lowell and Beckett from the Florida Marlins, extending the line of kings that has been the succession of Red Sox aces. From Roger Clemens to Pedro Martinez to Curt Schilling and now Beckett, the Sox have had a historic run of front-end starters. Among that group, with the possible exception of Schilling, no one has turned October into his personal showcase quite like the ace the Sox have now.

So the question must be asked: What will happen if he can't pitch?

"Things happen and you deal with them," Sox manager Terry Francona said last night when asked about Beckett's most recent setback, a strained oblique muscle suffered Friday that will push Beckett back to Game 3, at least. "If you deal with them well enough, you handle it. If you don't you go home."

One thing about Francona: It is at times like this when he is at his very best, the true leader of the uniformed Red Sox. He is not afraid to lose. Francona knows that baseball is often a game of attrition, that it tests your endurance, toughness, and depth. If you are brittle enough that one injury can derail your entire season, you probably didn't deserve to win anyway. Most always, the manager of these Red Sox seems capable of living with the outcome.

So, while the Red Sox and their followers might have felt a sharp blow to the midsection at the news of Beckett's latest problem, take solace in the fact that Francona, general manager Theo Epstein, and pitching coach John Farrell experienced that pain days ago. They have since moved on in hopes of finding a solution. Over the weekend, television cameras caught Francona in the dugout with his arm draped around young lefthander Jon Lester, and we can now only wonder about the nature of that conversation.

Here's the thing, kid: Beckett can't go Game 1, so I'm giving you the ball. And you know what? I'm OK with that. In fact, I'm more than OK with it. You've done this team and this organization proud with what you've accomplished this year and what you've already overcome in your life. I'd give the ball to you any day of the week, any time of the year. Your best is good enough for me.

Lester actually seemed to smile with a hint of embarrassment.

The Red Sox have survived this kind of thing before, most notably in Game 1 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, when Curt Schilling all but collapsed on his right ankle. Losses in Games 2 and 3 reaffirmed the notion that the Sox were cooked. What happened next was nothing short of a medical and hardball miracle -- any chance Dr. Bill Morgan can sew Beckett's oblique in place? -- and the Sox somehow rallied to win the next eight games and their first world title in 86 years.

It's worth noting that in Beckett's 27 starts this season, the Red Sox actually had a losing record (13-14). Behind Lester (22-11) and Matsuzaka (23-6), the Sox were a stunning 45-17. Teams like the Brewers would not be in the postseason today were it not for the contributions of their ace -- in Milwaukee's case, CC Sabathia -- but we probably cannot say the same for the Red Sox.

Yet last month, after Beckett was bombed by the Toronto Blue Jays and before the Sox admitted that the pitcher had nerve irritation in his elbow, the team unfailingly stood by its ace. Despite Beckett's difficulties during the regular season, despite his inability to reclaim the magic and momentum of 2007, the Sox continued to say that Beckett was their cornerstone, that they trusted him, that there was not anyone else they would prefer to send to the mound under the most difficult of circumstances.

"He's still our ace, no doubt about it," Farrell said in Baltimore last month. "He's still our No. 1 starting pitcher, and that's not to diminish what Daisuke and Jon Lester have done this year, but we still look at Josh as the leader of our pitching staff."

And they still do, whether Beckett can pitch Sunday or not. Anything less would be terribly disingenuous.

It's the leeway a pitcher of his postseason accomplishments has earned. We all know that it is different at this time of year, that certain players rise to the challenge while others shrivel up and wilt. Beckett is clearly one of the former. In Beckett's four postseason starts last season, the Red Sox went 4-0 and won by a combined score of 34-5. He has never been on a team that has lost a postseason series. Now Beckett is slated to go Game 3 instead of Game 1, which is not a disaster as much as it is an unfortunate wrinkle, especially against a team as healthy, deep, and hungry as the Angels.

The Red Sox were similarly disheveled in 2005, when meaningful games at the end of the regular season forced them to start Matt Clement in Game 1 of the playoffs against the White Sox. And while Clement got shelled in Game 1, the far more damning losses came in Games 2 and 3, when the Sox blew games they had chances to win.

As it was, Schilling never got to pitch in that series, which was symbolic if nothing else. Without their ace, the Red Sox were a completely different team. The belief now is that Beckett will pitch
Sunday rather than Wednesday, which places an obvious importance on one of the first two games. If the Red Sox can with either Game 1 or Game 2 behind Lester or Matsuzaka, they will take the field for Game 3 behind Beckett in a series tied at one game apiece.

As for gloomier scenarios, well, those are the ones nobody wants to think about.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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