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Suddenly, it's more than a milestone

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 13, 2011 11:08 AM

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Maybe this afternoon's good news -- that ace Josh Beckett will pitch either Thursday or Friday -- is harbinger that the worst of the Red Sox' September slide is over, that Fenway will host October baseball, that a three-game advantage over the Rays with 16 games to play will prove secure.

Me, I'm going to need more evidence. I'll believe the Red Sox's September can be salvaged and sweet when I see Tim Wakefield get career win No. 200 tonight against the Toronto Blue Jays. For most of the summer, Wakefield's pursuit of the milestone has stood as a nostalgic sidebar to the main story, which had the Red Sox coasting into the postseason.

But now? The season narrative has taken a cruel and unforeseen twist. The ancient knuckleballer takes the mound tonight for his eighth attempt at 200, and somehow, it's become white-knuckle time for his team. Heck, yes, we should be nervous. If the Sox play .500 ball over their final 16, the Rays just have to go 11-5 to tie. At the moment, the latter seems more plausible than the former for one reason, and no, Joe Castig, it's not the swell lettermen sweaters Joe Maddon is going to have the team wear on their next road trip.

It's Tampa's extraordinary advantage in starting pitching.

In Friday's first act of the Rays' three-game weekend sweep, Wade Davis pitched a complete-game six-hitter, lowering his ERA to 4.36. He is the Rays' fifth starter -- all five have at least 10 victories -- and his ERA is highest among those in the rotation. James Shields has gone the distance 11 times this season; he's not Big Game James, he's Complete Game James. Rookie Jeremy Hellickson is having a quietly superb season (2.90 ERA).

The Sox didn't even have to deal with gifted nuisance David Price in this series, and when the Rays arrive at Fenway for a four-game series beginning Thursday, they will bring with them recently recalled lefty phenom Matt Moore, who had a 1.37 ERA and 79 Ks in 52.2 innings in nine Triple A starts. He could be this year's version of what Price was during the 2008 American League Championship Series -- the ultimate X-factor.

The Red Sox simply cannot match up right now. Jon Lester was so scattershot in his chance to be a stopper Sunday that you couldn't help but wonder whether he's trying to pitch through an undisclosed or recurring ailment. Beckett is on the verge of his return, and again, that is tremendous news. Still, will his effectiveness be compromised?

And is there anyone you trust beyond him?

John Lackey's ERA is 6.30. Again: 6.30. Erik Bedard is hurt and hurt again. And let's make this clear: Anyone who watches tall, hard-throwing lefty Andrew Miller and draws any comparison to a young Randy Johnson needs to seriously recalibrate their expectations. Let's set the high at Lee Guetterman and the low at "dammit, Theo, you should have let the Yankees claim him." It must be tempting to put Alfredo Aceves in the rotation, but his ERA is nearly three runs lower in relief, and besides, who is going to clean up the messes left by Miller, Lackey, and the rest in salvageable games? Aceves is needed in the rotation, but he may be essential in the 'pen.

As for injuries, I keep hearing they're not an excuse, and that's true -- they're a reason. Beckett has been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball this season; if he had John Lackey's run support, he'd probably have a half-dozen more wins and be angling for a spot on the Cy Young podium a step or two below Justin Verlander. Bedard, a fine pitcher in those rare moments of health, has pulled off the neat and unsurprising trick of getting injured (lat) while he was injured (knee). Kevin Youkilis is in tatters, and his various injuries have obviously affected his performance. This will be the first season in his eight-year career where his OPS has not been higher than it was the previous year.

waketim.jpgThe offense really isn't to blame in this. Dustin Pedroia has slumped at a terrible time (.476 OPS the past two weeks), but that happens to the best of 'em over 162 games. Those who want to blame Adrian Gonzalez should read PeteAbe's post and then check back. While you wish they'd get Texas-hot and carry the lousy pitching, it's not as if they're hitting like Wakefield during his brief days as a New York-Penn League first baseman. Over the last two weeks, the Sox as a team have hit .269 with a .795 OPS, 16 homers, and 63 RBIs in 479 plate appearances. Those totals are pretty close to Youkilis's season stats, actually.

If there's any comfort for the Red Sox at the moment, it's that there will be no backing in for the Rays. Tampa Bay is going to have to earn its way in by beating its richer division rivals. They have four left with the Sox, and seven more with the Yankees, including a regular-season-ending three-game set at Replica Yankee Stadium.

It would be strange to depend upon the Yankees for help in making the postseason after spending the summer convinced -- justifiably given their head-to-head record and the Sox' depth -- that the Red Sox were the superior team. But that may very well happen. The Yankees' duct-taped rotation has somehow held together en route to October. Meanwhile, the Red Sox are counting on Tim Wakefield's knuckleball to help keep them afloat, his long-awaited milestone suddenly as important to his team as it is to him.

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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