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Pitching depth hits bottom

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  August 6, 2009 07:22 AM

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Remember that these Red Sox were built on pitching, on a rotation so long it seemed to run up and down Interstate 95, on a bullpen so deep it rivaled the Quechee Gorge. The rotation is much shorter now, the bullpen more shallow. And as the playoff races begin to bubble, the Red Sox look disturbingly vulnerable.

Brad Penny struggled Wednesday night in Tampa. (Reuters)

Be afraid, Sox followers. Be very, very afraid. With last night’s 6-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, the Red Sox are 7-10 in their last 17 games. Not one of those victories has come against a team with a winning record. (Five against Baltimore, one against Oakland, one against Toronto.) The Sox don’t have the lineup they once did and they don’t have the necessary pitching to make up for that - at least 60 percent of the time - and there is now sufficient reason to worry.

How did this happen?

Where did all that pitching go?

"It’s a long year," said manager Terry Francona. "The way the success of your season can get interrupted is by not having enough pitching. People accused us - and I don’t know if accused is the right word - but they accused us of having too much pitching. I don’t think we ever felt that way."

If they did then, they certainly do not now. During the final innings of last night’s game, the Sox announced they had settled on a minor league deal with righthander Paul Byrd, who hasn’t pitched for anyone, anywhere, since October. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the Red Sox clearly are desperate.

In many ways, last night’s loss was a worst-case scenario. Their bullpen depleted following Tuesday’s epic 13-inning loss, the Sox summoned Billy Traber from Triple A in the event they needed to take a bullet. They ended up being just competitive enough that Francona was inspired to use both Manny Delcarmen and Hideki Okajima for a second straight night (albeit conservatively) despite some desire to stay away from them entirely, particularly with the reeling John Smoltz due to face the Yankees’ collection of lefthanded hitters tonight at the new driving range in the Bronx.

Barring a victory, the best case for the Sox would have been a 7-1 defeat in which Brad Penny gave the Sox six innings and Traber gave them two. Instead, the Sox stayed sufficiently close to merely compound their woes.

"That’s the concern we had going into tonight’s game - that we’d be close enough and that we’d be within striking distance [but still lose]," Francona said. "That’s tough [to manage]. It is difficult."

All of this takes us back to the trading deadline, when the Red Sox acquired Victor Martinez (2 for 4 with a double and homer last night) from the Cleveland Indians to boost a sagging offense. According to one baseball source, the Sox had serious discussions with the Indians for both Martinez and starter Cliff Lee, at least until Cleveland wisely broke the tandem apart and effectively sold them off as condos. The point is that the Red Sox wanted a hitter and a pitcher, or, more importantly, they felt they needed both. In the upper corners of Fenway Park, the inhabitants know this team has holes.

The good news? Tim Wakefield threw a side session yesterday and will take part in another tomorrow, with a simulated game scheduled Monday. If all goes well, he could be back in the Boston rotation by the end of next week. Daisuke Matsuzaka could be back to help in September. Martinez has added significant depth to a Boston lineup that entered last night ranked a mediocre seventh in the American League in runs since the middle of May.

Still, even with Martinez, the Red Sox do not have the kind of offense to beat good teams by scores like 7-6, particularly on the road, where they will continue to spend the majority of their time through Aug. 20. And that was true even before Jason Bay left last night’s game with continued tightness in his hamstring.

"He said he was fine to stay in the game, but if he said something, something is bothering him," said Francona. "He’s a tough kid."

As for the Sox as a whole, the question now is whether they can stay in the game entering (and exiting) New York. Suddenly, this is starting to feel a good deal like 2006. The Sox were 1 1/2 games out of first place that season entering a five-game series against the Yankees in mid-August; by the end of it, they were 6 1/2 back and in a precipitous fall. That was the last time the Sox missed the playoffs, the only time during Theo Epstein’s tenure as general manager that there was no real fall baseball in New England.

Obviously, there is still a good deal of baseball to be played. With 56 games remaining, the Sox still have slightly more than one-third of the season to go. But if the Sox do not start getting better performances soon from Penny, Smoltz, and Clay Buchholz, they may have little choice but to rely on youngsters such as Michael Bowden and Junichi Tazawa during the most grueling part of the schedule. The Sox will have exhausted all that depth, leaving them in a rather precarious position.

And they will be, indisputably, in the deep stuff where no one wants to be.

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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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