In tight race, Smoltz, Buchholz are pivotal players for Red Sox

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Baseball is hard. You can lose 5 1/2 games in the standings and first place at the drop of a hat -- it just happened to the Red Sox.

Since returning from the All Star break, Boston has lost 10 of 18 while the Yankees have won 14 of 19. There hasn't been that much difference in how the two teams have actually played, as the Red Sox have outscored their opponents 90-81 during this time, while the Yankees have outscored theirs 99-82. And all of this may not matter, as according to one variant of Baseball Prospectus' postseason odds report, both teams have a better than an 88 percent chance of playing in October, no matter how lively the Rangers and Rays look as competition for the American League's wild card slot. But of course odds lie, and if the Sox lose out, they'll take little comfort in having once been in such a nice position.

What should be troubling them as they prepare for four games in Yankee Stadium is just how few ways there are for them to improve. Usually the easiest way for a team to get better fast is for it to improve its bullpen or defense, because relievers and glove men are cheap and relatively easy to use in ways that get the most of what they have to offer. The Red Sox, though, aren't likely to improve much in either of those areas.

Boston has had the best bullpen in the AL by far, with a 3.22 ERA -- that's almost a third of a run better than Tampa Bay, which has had the next-best. And while their defense, at least according to the UZR metric, has been the worst in baseball, that's largely a function of having a lot of older position players -- only New York is older -- so it's not likely to greatly change.

That leaves the lineup and the starting rotation. Even with the acquisition of Victor Martinez, the Sox probably aren't going to see any great gains in the former, just because they're already very good. Whether you go by raw runs scored per game or higher-end metrics such as wOBA, Boston already has one of the better offenses in baseball, a clear notch down from New York's but as good as anyone else's. And the same factor that makes defensive gains unlikely -- age -- also makes it unlikely that the offense is suddenly going to be much better than it has been.

By process of elimination, then, the most viable remaining route for improvement in Boston is the rotation. (Now you know why general manager Theo Epstein was reportedly pursuing a complex trade to bring Mariners ace Felix Hernandez to Fenway Park.) To this point, the team's starters have run up a 4.57 ERA, a hair off the 4.58 AL average. With 56 games remaining, every two-tenths of a run by which they lower that over the rest of the schedule should translate to about one extra win. This will be difficult, but the Sox can do it.

Take as a given that Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Brad Penny will do over the rest of the year about what they've done to this point, and that they'll account for 214 innings with a 3.95 ERA through the end of September. If the Sox were to get production out of the final two rotation spots about equivalent to what Clay Buchholz and John Smoltz, who currently hold those spots, have done this year -- something like 115 innings with a 6.70 ERA -- the rotation would end up with a 4.91 ERA over the last 56 games. If the Sox were to get better pitching from the back end of the rotation, though -- say, a 4.80 ERA from Smoltz's slot, and a 4.70 from Buchholz's -- the rotation ERA over the last two months would be down around 4.20. That would be worth a vital win or two in the standings, maybe enough to make the difference between losing out to Texas or Tampa Bay and not.

The big question is whether some combination of Smoltz, Buchholz, Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka (the latter two are currently injured) can actually pitch that well over the rest of the season. Smoltz has been rusty and homer-prone, but any pitcher with reasonable stuff and his vast experience who's running up a 6-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, as he is, can be expected to come around. And despite all the troubles Buchholz has had in the major leagues, he's still a young and incredibly talented pitcher who was completely dominant in Triple-A; league-average pitching isn't too much to ask for him. Add in Wakefield and Matsuzaka as backstops and there's reason for cautious optimism for Boston fans.

If Smoltz and Buchholz are the most important players on the Red Sox right now, it's only fitting that they'll be tested in the Yankees series. Smoltz matches up with Joba Chamberlain tonight, and Buchholz has CC Sabathia on Saturday. How they do in those games may be more important than whether or not the Sox actually win them -- something that is, of course, often out of the starters' hands.

Even if they get thrashed, though, the Red Sox faithful shouldn't worry too much. All talk about key players aside, the worst spin you can put on Boston's odds of making the playoffs is that they're at about 60 percent. Texas and Tampa Bay would take those any day.