From Roger Clemens to Pedro Martinez to Curt Schilling and beyond, the Red Sox always had an answer. But when it comes time to match up now, with the entire major leagues undergoing an ongoing detoxification, the truth is that the Red Sox simply do not match up anymore.
So while the Red Sox continue to blame the umpires and most anyone else (but themselves) in the wake of a weekend sweep at the hands of the pitching-rich Washington Nationals, the evidence suggests a far more worrisome problem. When it comes to premier pitching, the rest of the major leagues has passed the Red Sox by, which might be the biggest reason the Red Sox have not won a playoff game since 2008.
From Clemens to Martinez to Schilling, after all, the Red Sox did not merely have an ace at the front of their rotation. They had a legitimate, bona fide front runner for the Cy Young Award. That was true even in 2007, the year of the last Red Sox championship, when Josh Beckett appeared to take the baton.
But now? The Red Sox don't have an ace anymore, not a true one, not like Stephen Strasburg. Or maybe even Gio Gonzalez. Or maybe even Jordan Zimmermann. The very best starters in the game now reside in other cities - from Justin Verlander to Jered Weaver to David Price and Clayton Kershaw - and so there is no one the Red Sox can really turn to at the most demanding of times, when the other team has an elite pitcher on the mound and there is no room for error.
Blame the offense if you'd like. But the Red Sox almost never outpitch anyone anymore, and the weekend series against the Nationals seemed a prime opportunity. The Nationals left Boston late on Sunday ranked first in the majors in pitching, 26th in runs scored. The Red Sox were almost exactly the opposite (28th, third). The Nationals went 3-0 while the Red Sox went 0-3, which we might attribute to the individual matchups were it not for the bigger picture.
This season, the Red Sox are 9-17 against teams that currently rank in the top 10 in the majors in pitching. Boston starters simply are not capable of shutting down opposing teams anymore, even a club as relatively inept as the Nationals. (Washington averaged five runs per game over the weekend.) The Red Sox really have not pitched consistently well for more than a few years now, their starters ranking eighth (in 2009), sixth (in 2010), ninth (in 2011) and 12th (this year) in ERA since their last postseason win.
At the same time, no one from among the group of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, or Clay Buchholz has been good enough to carry them, which means the Red Sox have a collection of Nos. 2 and 3 starters (or worse) at the top of their rotation.
How the Red Sox are where they are is a story far too long to tell in one sitting, but there was a time when the Sox seemed positioned for long-term success. When the Sox signed Beckett to a four-year, $68 million contract at the start of the 2010 season and then locked up Buchholz in the spring of 2011, the Red Sox had their front four starters (including John Lackey) under team control through at least 2014. Most of us deemed that to a be a good thing (and not a bad one) at the time, which raises myriad questions.
Are the Red Sox to blame here for foolishly and prematurely locking up pitchers destined to fade? Or are the pitchers now coasting after having secured tens of millions of dollars each? Lackey got an $82.5 million contract and hasn't pitched well since. Beckett got his money before the 2010 season and ranks 53d among the 84 major league starters with at least 350 innings during that time. (Lester ranks 30th, Lackey dead last.) Since he got his deal in 2011, Buchholz ranks 133d out of 185 pitchers with at least 100 innings.
And before anyone suggests that the starters have been pitching well of late, let's all agree on something: good pitchers perform well consistently. They don't have a good month every now and then. Rather, they go through aberrational slumps. Not the other way around.
For certain, the Red Sox at the moment are dealing with an array of issues. Jacoby Ellsbury's absence and Adrian Gonzalez' relative impotence has made the Sox extremely vulnerable against righthanded starters that make up the majority of all major league pitchers. (The Sox have a losing record of 18-21 against righthanded pitching, easily the worst in their division.) If and when Ellsbury and Carl Crawford return to the lineup, there is certainly the chance that will change some.
Nonetheless, at a time like this, especially, the Red Sox need their pitching to carry them. Since the Red Sox last won a playoff game, the Red Sox have scored more runs than any team in baseball but the New York Yankees, yet Boston's only trip to the playoffs resulted in a three-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels in the fall of 2009.
Some people will tell you the Red Sox didn't hit in that series.
Others would tell you the Sox got outpitched.
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