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It's Lester for Game 3 ... and Game 6?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 12, 2008 07:56 PM

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In the back and forth of the postseason, the momentum shifts quickly. And so fewer than 48 hours after the Tampa Bay Rays took the field Friday with a touch of desperation, the Red Sox must now do the same.

For the moment, at least, all of this comes back to Josh Beckett, or at least to the impostor currently wearing No. 19 for the Red Sox. The ripple effect is enormous. The Red Sox now seem to be in a position where they must win the games started by Jon Lester, who faces Matt Garza at Fenway Park Monday in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. A Lester loss in Game 3 would deal the Sox a 2-1 series deficit with their Nos. 3 and 4 starters due to pitch next, and then there is the matter of the scheduled starter for a potential Game 6 at Tropicana Field later this week.


Suddenly, his name prompts an entirely different feeling.

"I saw probably a lot of what you guys saw, maybe from a different angle," Francona said Sunday when asked to assess Beckett's performance In Game 2. "I thought he was inconsistent, especially out of the stretch. I thought out of the wind-up there was a little more finish to his fastball, but when he got out of the stretch, I think he's still fighting some inconsistencies on what pitches he feels he can throw maybe in a key spot and not get hurt. You could see him thinking through it and kind of grinding through it a little bit."

As Beckett's wheels spin, we similarly cannot help but wonder:

Will the Red Sox send him back out for Game 6?

Do they want to?

When this ALCS began, of course, the Sox lined up their pitching in a manner that seemed to confuse many. Now it is starting to look like the Sox knew precisely what they were doing. After Lester had brilliant outings of 117 pitches and 109 pitches during the AL Division Series against the Los Angeles Angels, the Sox gave him extra rest entering the ALCS. Lester is now recharged, presumably, and it is probably a darned good thing.

Depending on what happens over the next few days, the Red Sox might need him to come back and pitch Game 6.

Before anyone dismisses that possibility out of hand, remember that there is an extra off day in this series, between Games 4 and 5. Thanks to that cushion, Lester could pitch Game 6 on full rest. Furthermore, the extra off day could allow the Sox to skip Beckett entirely and come back with Tim Wakefield in Game 7 if that seems a more palatable option, something not entirely out of the question given the way Beckett has performed in the postseason thus far.

In the first six games of this Red Sox postseason, Beckett has not merely been displaced from his role as Sox ace. Right now, he might not even be in the top three or four.

"Like I said from the beginning, it doesn't matter to me who's the No. 1 starter and who's the No. 5 starter," Lester said Sunday in anticipation of his Game 3 start. "We all have equal importance to this team when it comes to winning. I just try to go out and execute pitches. Hopefully I can go deep in the game and give the bullpen a rest and give it to [Jonathan Papelbon], and anytime you get to Pap with the lead, we're doing pretty good."

Again, let's be honest here: If this were anyone other than Josh Beckett, there simply would not be a doubt about Game 6. He wouldn't pitch. The determining factors now include the Red Sox' standing in this series coupled with the performance of Wakefield, who is scheduled to start against Andy Sonnanstine in Game 4 Tuesday night. If the Red Sox go to Tampa this weekend trailing the series by a 3-2 margin -- and if Wakefield were to give them a respectable outing in Game 4 -- the Sox could have greater temptation than ever before to reshuffle their rotation and skip Beckett, the man who fueled their run to the World Series title last year.

In past years, when Francona has resisted shuffling his rotation in mid-series, he cited an unwillingness to have anyone pitch on three days' rest at the most demanding time of year. But under the current scenario, the Sox could shuffle their rotation and keep their starters on full rest, creating an interesting scenario if and when it comes time to juggle the rotation.

Remember: When Francona announced the rotation before the start of the ALCS, the manager made it clear that there was always the chance things could change. And while Francona did not come out and say so, the Sox knew there was the very real possibility that they might have to bump Beckett later in the series because of physical limitations. (Does anyone out there actually believe that Beckett is healthy?)

Whatever the specifics with Beckett, Lester's starts now have taken on enormous importance; it is starting to feel like they must win every time he takes the mound. The Red Sox have won each of Lester's last 15 starts at Fenway this season and they are returning home after an exhausting loss in Game 2. A Tampa victory in Game 3 would place an inordinate amount of pressure on Wakefield in Game 4 and raise questions about Game 6, currently scheduled for Saturday at Tropicana Field.

One year after Beckett dominated in October, ask yourself the question:

Do you want him pitching that game or don't you?

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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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