Monday August 9th, 2010

NEW YORK -- The last time Josh Beckett took the ball in a Sunday night start against the Yankees was Opening Day, a game in which the Red Sox rallied for a 9-7 victory.

Boston's ace repeated that situation last night after an intervening four months in which New York built a six-game lead in the American League East. This time there was no comeback and hardly any offense, as the Red Sox managed just two runs in 6 2/3 innings against substitute starter Dustin Moseley.

The Sox lost 7-2, as Beckett took responsibility for pitching poorly, allowing 11 hits and seven runs over 4 2/3 innings.

"You give up seven runs, who else are you going to blame?" Beckett said.

Such a performance would sink most games anyway but especially right now while Boston's starting rotation is bearing a disproportionate share of the burden in determining the team's fortunes.

Luckily, Jon Lester ate up 6 1/3 innings in Monday's 2-1 victory, allowing the Red Sox to split their series with the Yankees as they fight back from injury.

Of the Red Sox's 10 Opening Day starters, six have spent time on the disabled list, including Beckett who missed two months with a back strain. And the team's two best all-around players, second baseman Dustin Pedroia and first baseman Kevin Youkilis, both remain out -- Pedroia for a couple more weeks and Youkilis for the rest of the season. In all, 16 Red Sox players have spent time on the DL; nine of them are current or former All-Stars.

Though Sox manager Terry Francona's daily press briefings sound increasingly like a chief resident making his rounds, he has refused to make excuses, instilling his club with endless optimism.

"Our margin for error is less because some guys are hurt, but that doesn't mean we can't win," Francona said. "We're not in first place. We're not where we want to be."

Francona's infield is in tatters. His outfield has been held together by unheralded journeymen. His bullpen has only two reliable relievers. But his starting rotation, in which the Red Sox have invested well over $200 million for the next few years, is finally intact for the first time since a two-week stretch in early May.

Thus the onus of the Red Sox's season -- which, because of a four-game deficit to the Rays for the wild card, is in jeopardy of not extending into October -- rests on the starters.

"That's probably an understatement," starter John Lackey said.

The rotation is currently the club's one healthy unit and certainly its most accomplished. Four of the five members are current or former All-Stars and the fifth, Daisuke Matsuzaka, once finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. Lackey said the pressure the starters feel hasn't been openly discussed. "It's just understood," he said.

Since Beckett returned on July 23, the staff has pitched like the season has depended upon them -- which it does. The Sox have gone 9-7 in that stretch. The starters have averaged 6 1/3 innings per outing with a 3.94 ERA and a .251 opponents' batting average. They've had to pitch well to win, as the Sox offense has only averaged 3.8 runs in that time span.

Clay Buchholz (12-5, 2.66 ERA) and Lester (11-7, 3.07 ERA and 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings) each should receive Cy Young consideration. Matsuzaka is 3-0 in his last five starts with a 2.48 ERA. Before Beckett's debacle Sunday night, the Sox had won each of his first three starts since returning from injury, during which time he went 20 2/3 innings with a 2.18 ERA. Lackey has allowed a career-high rate of base runners and hasn't been helped by facing the opponents' ace in four of his last five starts, but two weeks ago he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning.

The rotation has a tough task ahead. The Red Sox haven't been in second place since July 4. Since then they've gone 14-16, but with seven more games against the Yankees and six more with the Rays, they remain in contention. Increasingly, however, New York and Tampa Bay are looking like great teams, while Boston is merely very good.

The irony is that what could propel the Red Sox to the playoffs is the run prevention the club sought in the offseason. Before the year the Sox loaded up on pitching and defense, only to win most of its game by pounding the ball. Until recently the Sox had the majors' highest-scoring offense; now they're second, trailing only the Yankees.

This offensive output amid such a slew of injuries is a testament to the organization as a whole. The Red Sox have employed the most batters in the AL (39) and, probably not coincidentally, those batters are the league's oldest (an average of 31.5 years). In all Francona has filled out 97 different batting orders and used 82 different defensive lineups in 111 games.

The worst of Boston's carnage happened in a three-game series in San Francisco, in which one All-Star each day got injured: Pedroia broke his foot, Buchholz strained his hamstring, and catcher Victor Martinez broke his thumb. All three went on the disabled list. Three days later backup catcher Jason Varitek broke his foot, too.

"This is obviously the most injuries I've ever seen happen to one team, especially in the time frame that they did," said Red Sox Swiss Army knife Bill Hall, who out of necessity has played seven of nine positions, doing everything but catch or play first base. "The majority happened in two and a half days. Then they just kept piling up."

Even a few of the guys in the lineup are struggling physically. Shortstop Marco Scutaro is playing through a painful arm injury. Right fielder J.D. Drew has yet to go on the DL but has at several times this year missed a few games. Infielder Jed Lowrie has returned from wrist problems and a bout with mononucleosis. Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, recovering from cracked ribs, was 0-for-16 with just two walks in his return but came to life with four steals Monday. The injury to Youkilis happened two days after the trade deadline, rendering a reactionary move nearly impossible, as impact players will be blocked on waivers.

The Sox do have a few feared hitters packing the middle of the lineup in DH David Ortiz, Martinez and third baseman Adrian Beltre, who's been such a revelation that Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he was having an "MVP-type year." When Girardi checked Friday night's lineup card, he was impressed at Boston's makeshift order, even if they've failed to produce over the last fortnight.

"Everyone's talking about how their lineup has been depleted, but Mikey Lowell is hitting seventh still," Girardi said. "Their lineup is still good, and it's still dangerous."

The Red Sox have also dealt with some internal grumbling. On Boston's last trip to the Bronx, Lowell sat in front of his locker in Yankee Stadium and gave a premeditated spiel when reporters approached, voicing his frustrations over his lack of playing time. On Friday Lowell, who, with the injury to Youkilis, had received the role he was looking for, stood facing that same locker until he felt the presence of about two dozen reporters gathering behind him. He pulled out his chair to make himself comfortable.

"Everything about this season has been a little bit weird," Lowell said. "Am I happy that I'm playing? Yeah, I enjoy playing baseball. But with Kevin Youkilis not on your team, you're really not better. Do I think that I can plug the hole? I'm going to try my best."

After missing all of July with hip problems, Lowell homered on the first pitch he saw. In the first three games against the Yankees, he's 3-for-10 with a double, two RBIs and two runs while playing first base -- but the drama continues. When asked about rumors that the Red Sox were interested in adding a left-handed first baseman to platoon with him, Lowell said he wouldn't address that speculation until a player was signed. When the Sox signed Carlos Delgado to a minor league deal the next day, Lowell said he wouldn't comment until Delgado reached the majors.

Through it all, the Red Sox have managed to stay upbeat, catching that optimism from Francona, whose frequent refrain to players is a manageable one: "Just go out and try to do your job the best you can."

Soon after the team bus pulled up to Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon, music began filling the visiting clubhouse, plenty loud and upbeat. Centerfielder Mike Cameron, currently on the DL with an abdominal injury, walked in a moment later bearing the sly smile of the guilty, pleased with the tone he had set, though maybe not with the volume, so he instructed a clubhouse attendant to turn the music down from "party" to "hotel."

"We just need some good vibrations sometimes," Cameron said. "We run ourselves into the ground so much at the end of the day, so there are times when you just try to enjoy the day."

After the loss, Cameron waxed philosophical while sitting in front of his locker, an ice pack across his strained abdomen bulging through his shirt.

"I try not to stress too much because it doesn't help my body to heal," he said. "During the course of the game I get a little itchy from time to time, but for the most part, man, I just try to stay positive. Positive minds lead to a positive vibe, and a positive vibe leads to something good."

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