Thursday, September 22, 2011

Arms for the poor ... or a Farewell to Arms?

It isn't all that difficult to explain why the Red Sox have gone from a team on pace to win 100 games to one that might not even reach 90.

It comes down to one word: Pitching. Or, in the case of the Red Sox, lack of pitching.

With rare exceptions, and even with some of the team's best hitters fighting through late-season slumps, the Red Sox have scored runs. They scored runs last year, too, when they didn't even win 90 games and couldn't make the playoffs.

The line on them last year was that they couldn't hit good pitching and that's why they came up short. But really, who does hit good pitching? That's why it's ... repeat after me ... good pitching! Because nobody can hit it.

It's no crime to have a quiet day at the plate with C.C. Sabathia or Justin Verlander on the mound. You just have to hope, in those instances, that your pitcher can at least give your side a chance by keeping the Yankees and Tigers off the scoreboard.

Really, the anatomy of this late-season-collapse-in-waiting can be easily explained. Tell me that last time the Red Sox got the early jump? Can you? I'm not sure I can, and I'll be damned if I take five minutes off my life to look it up. Suffice it to say that every time you look up, the Red Sox are losing early in the game. They may come back on some nights ... and they may not. But it's a safe bet that they never score first ... or, at least, haven't very often in the last month and a half.

Their pitching continually puts them behind the eight-ball. Even the ones who belong here, let alone the ones who are only in the rotation because there's no one else healthy enough to throw the ball.

I don't care how good your offense is. If you're constantly playing from behind, and your back end of the bullpen is being lit up like the Griswolds' house on Christmas Eve, then you're not going to win. The 1927 Yankees couldn't score enough runs to overcome that.

Let's examine. Coming out of the chute, the Red Sox had five projected healthy major league starters: Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buccholz and Daisuke Matzusaka.

But the theme song for this staff should be "Ten Little Indians." One by one, they all went down at one point in the season. First it was Daisuke, who had to have Tommy John surgery. Then Lackey went on the DL, ostensibly for some kind of elbow problem, but more likely because of the mental anguish he's been suffering due to his wife's illness.

OK. Let's cut him some slack here. We're all human beings, and we're all affected by what goes on around us. And you'd have to be abnormally tough not to let your wife's cancer, and the issues surrounding it, creep into your psyche and make you less effective at your job.

Now, some people might be. Lackey, clearly, is not. In fact, Lackey, even before his wife got sick, is one of those guys who crumbles like a stale cracker the minute something goes wrong. You can see it. He puts on a face, goes into all these body contortions, and you can just tell he's rapidly coming undone. The Sox have had lots of pitchers recently with the ability to shrug these things off and refocus. Not Lackey. the minute he, or someone else, makes a mistake, that's his cue to stomp around, gesture, make a face, and then exacerbate the problem.

I don't know how much fun it is to play behind someone like that, but it sure as hell isn't any fun to watch.

Lackey's had his moments. But not many. So when he pitches, the onus is on the offense to put up a lot of runs. But what's a lot? Eight? That's how many they put up for him last time out, and he couldn't hold that lead.

Buccholz? Lost year. To me, he's the key to the whole thing. Considering he's probably missed about 12 starts now (at least), let's speculate that with the offense this team has, and his 3.64 ERA, the team probably would have won nine of them. Not sure how many they won with the rag-tag group of arms that took his place, but I'm betting it wasn't that many. It could very well be that this thing would be over now with a healthy Buccholz. There would have been no Andrew Miller, and some of the other stiffs who have been thrown in there because of the Sox' paucity of pitchers.

Thirty or forty years ago, you asked your starter to go seven or eight innings, and perhaps even nine. Whatever Tony LaRussa was doing in the 1960s, he wasn't re-inventing pitching, and running guys in and out of there three/four times an inning depending on matchups.

But since that's where we are with pitching, all we're asking the starter to do is go six-seven innings. Seven is ideal. Six is more the norm, unless his pitch count is low. Now, we have specialists for the last three innings, and when everything is set up properly one guy each pitches the last three innings.

The Red Sox signed Bobby Jenks for the seventh inning. Obviously that didn't work out. They tried to Matt Albers in that role after some of their other ones didn't pan out. No dice. They had a lefty who could come in to get tough left-handed hitters out (Rich Hill) but he blew out his elbow the same time Daisuke did, with the same result. So, basically, they had no lefty-on-lefty pitcher all season.

The top two guys, Beckett and Lester, pretty much held up their end of the bargain until about a month ago, and then even they started breaking down. I'm really baffled about this. There was some speculation that the Red Sox aren't in very good shape, and there may be some credence to that, especially among the pitchers. It just seems awfully strange that all five of them suffered major injuries this year, and that Lester, in particular, all of a sudden can't find home plate with a GPS.

Something is amiss here. And with all the finger-pointing going on, you have to wonder why pitching coach Curt Young seems to be getting a pass here. Aren't pitching coaches supposed to be able to take guys like Daniel Bard aside and detect flaws in their delivery so that they don't go three or four games in a row just totally stinking out the joint? Aren't they supposed to be able to take Lester on a side session or two and knock heads to figure out why a guy who was among the best pitchers in baseball the last two years all of a sudden can't locate his pitches and ends up going deep into almost every count?

I mean, what else is the guy getting paid for?

While the offense cannot be totally exonerated, let's be real. These pitchers, and this bullpen, do what they're suppose to do, which is throw strikes and get outs, this race is over and we're talking about a team that's poised to win about 95 games. The entire conversation is altered.

And what does all this prove? It proves, once again, that you can never ... again, repeat after me ... never, ever, ever, EVER, have enough pitching.

Seems like anybody who knows anything about baseball should have figured that out by now.

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