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Sox counting on Beckett to deliver

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 16, 2011 04:48 PM

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I like to think I've proven myself as someone who is not prone to screeching from the rooftops about their personal effect on my summah when the Red Sox lose 3 of 4 -- or a season-opening 8 of 10, for that matter. Being a voice of reason isn't profitable and doesn't get your mug on TV, but at least it comes from an honest place.

As far as I'm concerned, the past decade-plus in Boston sports has confirmed seven times over that faith often is rewarded, that the benefit of the doubt is worth giving, that Boston's teams are more resilient than those who killed your father and are coming for you, as the saying used to go.

So it's with some disappointment that I offer this confession: I'm all but convinced that the Red Sox are cooked if Josh Beckett doesn't come through tonight.

You know I've searched for optimism in history and math, in sabermetrics and the brief remaining schedule, as the battered Red Sox have tried to avoid melting to their core while the Rays have surged. I checked Baseball Prospectus's odds of making the postseason -- 95.1 for the Sox, 3.8 percent for the Rays -- and all I could think was, "No team relying on Tim Wakefield, John Lackey, and Kyle Weiland should have 19-1 odds in anything."

I thought maybe the great Dave Cameron's piece on Fangraphs, titled It's Still Not Time To Panic In Boston, would provide some catharsis in logic.

But the case that there is "not all that much to worry about'' presumes that each of the final three games in this series is a 50-50 tossup (with some benefit given to the Red Sox for playing at home), concluding that the odds of the Rays winning all three and pulling even in the wild card race this weekend are just 12.5 percent.

shieldsjamesfinn.jpgI appreciate the common sense of the argument, but I just can't wrap my head around the 50-50 aspect. Josh Beckett takes the mound against Complete Game James Shields with a gimpy ankle after a 10-day layoff. Maybe that one is 50-50. Maybe. Shields has been lousy against the Sox at Fenway over his career (1-8, 6.99 ERA -- maybe I should have said Lackeyesque with that ERA). But he's been excellent overall this season (2.70 ERA), and he allowed three hits and three earned runs in eight innings in his only start at Fenway this season.

The Red Sox' one perceived pitching advantage -- Jon Lester versus Jeff Niemann tomorrow -- really isn't an advantage at all considering Lester's alarmingly wretched four-inning performance against the Rays in his last start and the fact that Niemann has allowed five hits in 17 innings against the Sox this year. And Sunday features David Price versus Tim Wakefield, possibly a mismatch as great as the difference in their velocity.

For every optimistic thought that I have about this series -- maybe Adrian Gonzalez has a Yaz-in-'67 moment or two in him -- the miniscule part of my brain that deals in common sense quickly counters with a "yeah, but. " As in:

Yeah, but ...

... Gonzalez has a calf injury, which probably makes him refreshed and ready by current lineup standards but could impact his performance in some way.

Yeah, but . . .

. . . what if Lester and Daniel Bard can't fix their mechanics or whatever it is that has caused their recent issues.

Yeah, but ...

. . . they've lost nine of 11, including six straight to the Rays.

Yeah, but . . .

. . . they've lost 5 of 6 to the Rays at Fenway this season, with a minus-25 run differential.

Yeah, but ...

. . . the Rays have knocked eight games off the wild card lead since August 7.

Yeah, but . . .

... Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton are suddenly pounding Red Sox pitching again like they're replaying the 2008 ALCS . . .

Yeah, but . . .

. . . all right, I'm sick of this device, too. And being a part of the negativity stinks. I hate the wrong-headed narratives that the Sox lack heart or don't have any spark or that "Francoma" needs to tip over the postgame spread or that someone needs to yell "Cowboy Up!" It always looks that way in baseball when a team is tired, injured, or struggling. You don't have to bound around like nine wee Ecksteins just to prove you care.

It's mostly a health problem that plagues the Sox right now, not a character or effort problem. The little perceived omens -- such as last night's routine grounder to Marco Scutaro that turned out to be riding shotgun with the barrel of a bat -- will be touchstones if the Sox fail to make the postseason, but what we fear is happening has to do with an attrition of talent more than anything else. I can't be the only one around here who suddenly realized that Dice-K is actually missed.

It's a sprint to the finish, and the Red Sox are limping. I'm not worried about their condition entering the playoffs; just get there first, and sort it out then. If there's any comfort here whatsoever, it's that the Rays have the Yankees seven times and the pesky Blue Jays for the other three after they leave Boston. The Sox have three against the Yankees and seven against the lowly Orioles. Buck Showalter doesn't like Theo or the Red Sox, and they're surely on the short list of teams whose season he'd love to spoil, right after the three teams that fired him. That's one thing I'm not worried about.

But first, the Red Sox have to survive the Rays. Tonight, they turn to an accomplished big-game pitcher with a messed-up ankle. I seem to recall a vaguely similar scenario working out before.

I hope that passes for optimism. Because right now, it feels like wishful thinking.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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