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Protect those arms

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 1, 2009 09:07 AM

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Games like last night's are obvious flukes, baseball’s way of reminding us all that there are simply no guarantees. You have can have a nine-run lead. You can have the best bullpen in baseball. You can be entering the bottom of the seventh against the worst team in your division.

And you still could lose.

And so, if you’re Theo Epstein today in the wake of last night’s stunning 11-10 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, here is the message you take from the shocking result: hold onto your pitching. For the Orioles, last night’s outcome was akin to the winning lottery, albeit without the long-term implications. The Orioles are going nowhere this year. The Red Sox, on the other hand, currently look like the class of the American League -- if not all of baseball -- and most everyone else still wants what they have.

"We went through a period where I think we gave up 13 hits in two innings,’’ a disbelieving Terry Francona told reporters after last night’s game. "We just had no answer. We went through just about everybody. There were balls everywhere. ... When you give up 13 hits -- that was as bad as we’ve seen.’’

And, in all likelihood, it is far worse than anything else we will see again in this 2009 season.

This afternoon, the Red Sox will ask Josh Beckett to be their elixir in the wake of last night’s debacle, but that is not the only reason this game will be noteworthy. Today is July 1. The annual trading deadline is now precisely 30 days away. Baseball’s pretenders and contenders will veer away from one another in the coming weeks, and we all know the direction in which the Red Sox will be traveling. Once again, Boston will be among those at the very front of the pack aimed at October, eyeing a sixth trip to the postseason in the last seven years and, perhaps, a third World Series title since the start of 2004.

This club has many of the same concerns it did when it broke camp three months ago. David Ortiz has had two bad months and one good one. Shortstop remains a concern. Mike Lowell’s health is now up in the air. The Red Sox could probably use another hitter, with or without Lowell’s potential return, and their pitching staff remains the true strength of the team, top to bottom, from Beckett all the way through closer Jonathan Papelbon.

For this club, from the very beginning, the consistency and health of the positional players was a primary concern. How long could Lowell hold up? How consistent could Ortiz be? Were it not for the generally positive developments concerning Jacoby Ellsbury, Jason Varitek, and Nick Green, the Sox might be far closer to the middle of the pack than the front, a team regarded as having the kind of offensive flaws that could prove fatal.

But the pitching? Deep. Talented. Downright awesome, particularly in the bullpen. Last night does not change that. The only issues the Red Sox have had this season have come in that spot of the starting rotation -- let’s call it the No. 3 starter -- that might have belonged to Daisuke Matsuzaka. Between them, Matsuzaka, Justin Masterson, and John Smoltz have made 16 starts in that space, the Sox compiling a 5-11 record. The rest of the time, be it behind Beckett, Jon Lester, Tim Wakefield, or Brad Penny, the Sox are a sterling 42-19, a pace that would produce 112 victories over the course of a 162-game schedule.

In the coming weeks, Epstein obviously will have some decisions to make, many of them concerning the Boston offense. The only real concern is what Epstein is willing to pay. Epstein generally has guarded his prized prospects in recent years, something that is becoming increasingly difficult to criticize him for. Brandon Moss, David Murphy, Craig Hansen? Other teams have acquired them all. In the interim, Ellsbury, Lester, and Clay Buchholz, among others, remained under lock and key in Epstein’s safest place.

Somehow, thanks to the world titles and the productivity of the Boston farm system, Epstein has completely flipped the manner in which midseason trades are conducted. The Red Sox don’t need the veteran players so much as other teams might need Boston’s prospects. Certainly, other clubs need the Red Sox’ pitching. Where the trading deadline was once a time when contenders like the Red Sox might add players for a run at the world title, now it is a time for the Sox to see what they can get for their elite young players, particularly the pitchers.

So what should Epstein do now? He should wait. The only teams that might want pitchers from Boston’s big league staff are contenders, teams (like the Texas Rangers) that might want to fortify their bullpens for the stretch run. All in all, they have relatively little to offer. At this moment, why should the Red Sox improve someone else’s bullpen while worsening their own, particularly following a game like last night’s, a reminder of just how fortunate the Red Sox have been to have all of their relievers firing on all cylinders all year long.

So the Red Sox had an ugly loss last night. Big deal. The Sox still have more pitching than two average big league clubs combined. If one of them wants to pay out the nose for a Michael Bowden or even a Buchholz, Epstein should listen. If no one does, Epstein should keep what he has, despite last night, and keep taking his chances.

With pitching, after all, you can never have too much.

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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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