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Hunting for the ace

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  August 28, 2009 11:24 AM

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Were we talking about the Josh Beckett of June, there would be positively no cause for concern. But at the moment, at least, the Beckett of late August is something altogether different, and the Red Sox currently appear more vulnerable than they would like.

The circus was in town at Fenway Park last night, the Sox dropping a 9-5 decision to the Chicago White Sox in a game that felt far more like the 13-0 drubbing against Tampa Bay on April 30. Before last night, that was the last time a Boston positional player -- in that case, Jonathan Van Every -- had been forced to pitch. The Sox subsequently took the field the next day behind Justin Masterson, who gave up six runs in six innings of an eventual 6-2 loss that left the Sox at 14-9 for the season with a whopping 139 games to play.

But this?

This is late August. The games have a far different feel now and the playoff races are at a virtual boil. The Red Sox tonight will send Beckett to the mound against a Toronto Blue Jays outfit that that has been stripped down in recent weeks, and they will do so following a game in which manager Terry Francona opted for Nick Green as his reliever of choice in the eighth inning of what was a 9-2 game. Even after the Sox scored a pair of runs in the eighth to make it 9-4, Green took the mound for the ninth.

"That’s not an easy decision," Francona said of his choice to pitch Green in a game that was not appropriately lopsided. "If we went to [Jonathan Papelbon], he wouldn’t be available [tonight]. If we went to [Hideki Okajima], he wouldn’t be available [tonight]. [Takashi] Saito is not available. He slept on his neck wrong, so he’s out of the picture. [Billy] Wagner was unavailable.

"It was a rough night, right from the beginning," Francona said. "As bleak as the game was looking, it looked worse from where we were."

Translation: In the early innings of last night’s game, Francona and pitching coach John Farrell knew they were on a crash course for Green. Very few others did, which is why the move seemed so surprising.

All of this brings us back to Beckett, whose last two outings have produced an 0-1 record and 10.12 ERA. In 13 1/3 innings, he has allowed 18 hits, 15 runs, and 8 homers. Opponents have batted .316 against him with an .807 slugging percentage and a 1.129 OPS. All of that damage has come while Beckett has issued one walk, which is to say that there has been nothing fluky about this. He has been getting pounded.

Following his last start, an 8-4 defeat to the Yankees in which he allowed five home runs, Beckett seemed so annoyed that he strained to censor himself. And as we all know, this is a man who never stops short in criticizing himself when the situation calls for it.

More than anyone, Beckett knows this is a bad time of year for a slump, especially with the Red Sox having relatively little consistency in their starting rotation.

For all of the debate and discussion surrounding the Sox lately -- should Victor Martinez catch more? Is Junichi Tazawa being rushed? -- we almost all agree on one thing: Without Beckett in top form, the Sox will have no chance at winning another world title. None. Maybe the Sox would make the playoffs, maybe they would not. Regardless, they are not winning a championship without him in peak form. We learned that last October, when Beckett pitched with an oblique strain that stripped him of his explosive velocity. And we learned it in 2006, when Beckett slogged through his first year in the American League, issuing 74 walks and serving up precisely three dozen homers as if they were glazed donuts.

Since that time, Beckett has gone 46-22, a .676 winning percentage that ranks second among all qualifying pitchers to only Jon Lester (30-13, .698). He has more wins in the AL than any pitcher but Roy Halladay (49-25, .662). Given that Lester did not begin to fully blossom until May of last year, Beckett has been the block of granite on which the Red Sox pitching staff has been built. Lester has developed into a front-line pitcher under his wing. The bullpen routinely has been spared on those days Beckett has pitched. The Sox have won with consistency every time Beckett has taken the mound.

Now, following a night on which Green was far more effective than Tazawa, the Red Sox cannot afford another clunker from their ace. The last time Beckett allowed 15 earned runs in consecutive starts -- in his final two outings of April -- he responded by going 12-2 with a 2.17 ERA over the span of 18 starts. That run thrust him into the thick of AL Cy Young Award contention and helped carry the Red Sox into the middle of playoff contention. Now the Sox are playing the most important regular season games they have played in years -- from here on out every contest becomes more and more like a playoff game -- and this is that time for which they pay Beckett more than any other pitcher on the Boston staff.

Starting tonight, the Red Sox need their ace to get back where he belongs.

Out in front.

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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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