April 1, 2013

COMMENTARY — ON BASEBALL: Once again, pitching key for Red Sox

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

When the Boston Red Sox experienced their September collapse in 2011, starting pitching proved to be the fault line in the foundation.

Josh Beckett and Jon Lester both featured ERA's over five in the end. A frail John Lackey was at 9.13. Clay Buchholz was hurt.

But this was supposedly a blip, something that would not occur again. The Red Sox proclaimed that 2012 would be different. The staff still featured most of its top starters -- although Lackey was out after elbow surgery and Tim Wakefield retired.

The 2012 result: Lester (4.82), Beckett (5.23), Buchholz (4.56) and Felix Doubront (4.86) were part of a rotation that comprised a 5.19 ERA. That happened to be the worst ERA for a starting rotation in Red Sox history.

And now we are to expect that 2013 will be better, even though the rotation features a lot of the same names: Lester, Buchholz, Doubront and Lackey. Beckett got dealt to the Dodgers and the Red Sox signed veteran Ryan Dempster (replacing the ineffective Aaron Cook and Daisuke Matsuzaka).

Maybe the key to this hoped-for turnaround is new manager John Farrell, the former Red Sox pitching coach from 2007-10, and his hand-picked pitching coach Juan Nieves.

They have worked on getting this staff in sync. And, if spring training is any indication, they are getting results.

The five starters have put together a 2.32 ERA this spring, counting Lackey's three shutout innings of Team Puerto Rico.

Lester, the lefty who gets the ball today in Boston's season-opener in New York, featured a 0.75 ERA.

"The biggest thing for me was working on what we've been talking about since Day 1 (of spring training) and trying to repeat that," Lester said last week in Fort Myers, Fla. "I'm getting good results. That always helps ... I'll treat April as the same thing and try to have the same result."

A strong season by Lester will go a long way in making the Red Sox a contender. From 2008-11, he averaged over 16 wins, before going 9-14 last year. This spring, his fastball has been down and on the corners.

"That's the biggest thing for any pitcher. You got to have fastball command to get them to swing at your other pitches," Lester said. "I'm also pleased with my curveball. Been able to throw it for strikes. Throw it for balls and get swings. Another big pitch for me to get people off the cutter."

Buchholz also had a dominating spring with a 0.79 ERA.

Dempster, Doubront and Lackey have all look solid in the spring, with some rough spots here and there. Their performance gives Boston confidence.

With a solid 1-2 in Lester and Buchholz and enough quality innings from the other three arms, Boston can compete.

"What is extremely encouraging is the way we've pitched consistently throughout camp," Farrell said. "Coming into spring training, having pitching set up at some level of dependability and durability was probably the No. 1 objective.

"We've been able to accomplish that so far. Going forward, that will be the overall key to our ability to win games consistently."

In 2004, Boston had a 1-2 in Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. In 2007, it was Beckett and Schilling. The rest of the rotation in those years filled in nicely.

Today, Lester can go a long way to assure Red Sox fans that 2013 will not repeat 2011's collapse or the disaster of 2012.

Opening day, and all eyes are anxiously on the mound.

Kevin Thomas -- 791-6411

kthomas@pressherald.com

Twitter: @ClearTheBases

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