On the morning of June 30, the Boston Red Sox had won their last twelve games and held a four-game lead in the American League East. A month later their lead in the East had shrunk to 1 1/2 games. From there they went into a free fall, winning just nine of their next 31 games. The Sox are now 11 1/2 games behind the first-place Yankees and could be eliminated this weekend should they fail to at least split the four games they'll play in the Bronx.
So what happened? Simple really, their pitching completely imploded. No team gave up more runs in August than the Red Sox, who allowed a major league worst 5.97 runs per game as their opponents posted a .314 batting average against them.
Why? Look no further than this weekend's probables. Josh Beckett has been an utter disappointment, mixing a 6.38 August ERA with his 33 home runs allowed in 184 innings (1.61 per 9 IP). Curt Schilling, who came out of the gate looking like the ace of old, posted a 5.22 ERA in August and has missed his last three starts due to a strained back. The Sox had hoped he'd return to pitch on Saturday afternoon, but instead they'll have to give a fourth start to Julian Tavarez, who was moved out of the bullpen into the rotation in Schilling's stead in part because he was so ineffective out of the pen that the team figured it couldn't hurt to try it. The second game of Saturday's double header will see Kyle Snyder take the mound for the Sox. Snyder has a 7.02 ERA as a starter this season, but the Sox rotation is so depleted that they keep running him back out there. Saturday's nightcap will be his tenth start for Boston. Worse yet, Snyder isn't their most desperate attempt to find a starter. Things have gotten so bad that the Red Sox are carrying 37-year-old Kevin Jarvis, he of the career 6.05 ERA. I mean, seriously, look at these numbers! Finally, Monday's starter will be rookie Kason Gabbard. Who? Exactly.
It's telling that Tavarez and Gabbard have actually improved the Boston rotation as they've replaced the since-released Jason Johnson (7.36 ERA in six starts for the Sox) and highly-touted rookie Jon Lester, who has alarmingly been diagnosed with lymphoma, but nonetheless posted a 7.66 ERA in five August starts before landing on the disabled list. With Tavarez and Gabbard in the rotation, the Sox have split their last dozen games. That counts as progress in Beantown these days.
How did things get so bad? Let's take a look at the Red Sox opening day rotation:
Curt Schilling, age 39, 240 plus pounds, and two years removed from an infamous ankle injury has been inconsistent and is now injured.
Tim Wakefield, age 39 (now 40), missed nearly two months, including all of August, due to injury.
David Wells, age 42 (now 43), spent most of the year on the DL, making just eight starts before the Sox waived the white flag and sent him to his hometown Padres for the stretch run.
Matt Clement made just 12 starts before an injury to his pitching shoulder ended his season.
Josh Beckett, the franchise's new "ace," is a pitcher who spent his entire career in a pitchers park in the NL and had never stayed healthy enough to make 30 starts.
In order to clear room for that quintet, the Sox traded Bronson Arroyo to the Reds and installed Jonathan Papelbon as their closer, reducing their back-up plan to rookies Lester and David Pauley and swing-lefty Lenny DiNardo--all of whom have spent time on the 60-day DL this year, the latter two doing so with ERAs well north of 7.00--and rookie Abe Alvarez, who has made just one disaster start for the big club. Thus waiver bait such as Johnson, Snyder and Jarvis. Thus desperation moves such as Tavarez. Thus dipping even deeper into their farm system for someone like Gabbard, who posted a 5.23 ERA with triple-A Pawtucket this year after a 4.61 mark in double-A last year.
With all that in mind, could it be that the best thing that has happened to the Red Sox this year, the remarkable rookie season Jonathan Papelbon has had as their closer, has also been the thing that destroyed their season? If Papelbon wasn't quite so dominant as a closer, might the Sox have been willing to move him back into the rotation when it became clear that their starting pitching would sink their playoff hopes without him?
What's more, can the Sox really expect to compete next year without moving Papelbon to the rotation? Schilling and Wakefield will be another year older. Wells is gone. Clement and Beckett will be no more reliable. Lester has cancer. The market is thin, as is the Sox farm system, particularly with Anibal Sanchez throwing no-hitters in teal and black. Nate Silver has reason to believe that Papelbon is actually best suited to the role he's in, but the Red Sox may have no other choice.
As the Yankees continue to improve from within, the 11 1/2 games that separate these two teams coming into this weekend looks an awful lot like a harbinger of things to come.
Manager: Terry Francona General Manager: Theo Epstein
Home Ballpark (2005 Park Factors): Fenway Park (101/101)
Who's Replaced Whom?
Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon have been activated from the DL
Dustin Pedroia (minors) replaced Alex Gonzalez (DL), Gonzalez has since been reactivated
Carlos Peña replaced C Javy Lopez
Tim Wakefield (DL) replaced David Wells
Lenny DiNardo (DL) replaced Jon Lester (DL)
Mike Burns replaced LHP Javier Lopez, Lopez has since been recalled
David Murphy, Ken Huckaby, Kason Gabbard, Kevin Jarvis, Craig Hansen and Craig Breslow are September call-ups
1B Kevin Youkilis (R)
2B Mark Loretta (R)
SS Alex Gonzalez (R)
3B Mike Lowell (R)
C Jason Varitek (S)
RF Trot Nixon (L)
CF Coco Crisp (S)
LF Wily Mo Peña(R)
DH David Ortiz (L)
L Eric Hinske (UT)
L Alex Cora (IF)
R - Doug Mirabelli (C)
R - Dustin Pedroia (IF)
L - Carlos Peña (1B)
R Gabe Kapler (OF)
L - David Murphy (OF)*
R - Ken Huckaby (C)*
R - Manny Ramirez (OF)**
R Curt Schilling
R Tim Wakefield
R Josh Beckett
R Julian Tavarez
R Kyle Snyder
L - Kason Gabbard*
R - Kevin Jarvis*
R Jon Papelbon
R Mike Timlin
R - Keith Foulke
R Manny Delcarmen
R Keith Foulke
L Lenny DiNardo
R Bryan Corey
R - Mike Burns
R - Craig Hansen*
L - Craig Breslow*
L - Javier Lopez*
60-day DL: R Matt Clement, L Jon Lester, R - David Pauley, L - Adam Stern (OF)
R Kevin Youkilis (1B)
R Mark Loretta (2B)
L David Ortiz (DH)
R Wily Mo Peña (LF)
L - Trot Nixon (RF)
R Mike Lowell (3B)
S - Jason Varitek (C)
S Coco Crisp (CF)
R Alex Gonzalez (SS)
**The Sox don't expect Manny to play at all this weekend due to his ongoing knee injury. Needless to say, David Ortiz shouldn't see a good pitch to hit all weekend as a result, thus completely defanging the Red Sox offense (not that you can't count on at least one rocket shot from Wily Mo, but it could be his only hit of the series when it comes).