Daisuke Matsuzaka's return from the DL is just one of Boston's big variables.
Their advance scouting report shows Matsuzaka's opposing counterpart Tuesday, John Lackey, is coming off his best start of the season. Lackey had his best stuff, his best command and a curveball so good it produced nearly a dozen missed swings in his previous start against Seattle. After this home set with the Angels, Boston will take its 34-37 road record to Baltimore, Kansas City and New York for the next 10 games.
In a season that has had all the smoothness of a turbulent airplane flight, the Sox carry some depressing numbers on the back of their rotation: In the 47 games started by Matsuzaka, John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Junichi Tazawa and Paul Byrd, those starters have recorded a grand total of three outs after the sixth inning. Daisuke's most recent quality start was Oct. 10 in the ALCS against Tampa Bay.
However, Matsuzaka threw better for Class A Salem in the Carolina League playoffs against Winston-Salem (recording 20 outs and allowing just three hits) than he has all season. "Once he got comfortable and into a rhythm, he threw really well," one Red Sox official said of Matsuzaka's rehab assignment. "But who knows? [Chone] Figgins, [Vladimir] Guerrero and [Kendry] Morales weren't in the Winston-Salem lineup. So we have no idea what to expect."
Which sums up the way Boston's 2009 season has evolved. "It's been a strange season, because I don't feel as if we've ever had everything going together at the same time," manager Terry Francona said. "Oh, we've had some winning streaks [10 straight in April, 10 out of 12 recently and they have currently won five in a row], but it's never seemed as if we've had everything working.
"But I'll say this: I really like our resiliency. We've had times when we could have taken steps backwards, but these guys have always fought back. That's the biggest reason we still have a chance."
Indeed. Tim Wakefield limps across the clubhouse like Walter Brennan, yet he is still trying to get back on the mound. Mike Lowell often moves as if he's chained, but he hits and plays as hard as he can. Josh Beckett had felt sick for two weeks and never made an excuse. This is a team that lost six in a row at Tampa Bay and New York -- once in 13 innings, once in 15, and went 4-for-53 with runners in scoring position -- and came home to win three straight from the Tigers.
"Don't worry about us," Dustin Pedroia said. "We'll figure out how to do what we have to do."
After taking three straight from the Rays over the weekend, the Sox sit 4 games up on the Rangers in the AL wild-card race. Which begs an interesting question: Where would they sit had the Blue Jays accepted Boston's offer of Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden, Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone and Josh Reddick for Roy Halladay? "We are very lucky Toronto didn't do that deal," one Boston official said. "For the short and long terms."
Buchholz is 5-2 since and gave up just one run over seven innings in Sunday's Red Sox victory (though he did not factor in the decision). Halladay is 3-5 in that span. Because Buchholz is so inexpensive next season, it will free the money to sign Jason Bay or Matt Holliday and take on a contract or two.
The Red Sox also would not have acquired Victor Martinez at the trade deadline. Not only has Martinez completely changed the Boston order by settling the third hole in front of Kevin Youkilis and Bay while allowing J.D. Drew to operate lower; he has also brought offense to the catching position, where Jason Varitek has hit .165 since the All-Star break. Martinez also has earned the trust of the pitchers -- not easy when they have trusted Varitek for so long -- and has instantly become a major presence in the clubhouse.
"I didn't know him before," one Boston veteran said. "But wow he's a special guy."
By the middle of last season, the Red Sox knew they were never going to have Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz together in the middle of the order, as they had from 2003 through their second World Series victory in 2007. Now with Martinez's .400 OBP and .918 OPS (about the same as Mark Teixeira) in his first 37 games in a Boston uniform, the middle of the lineup is solidified with Martinez and Youkilis.
Alex Gonzalez makes the defense fit. When Jed Lowrie went down with his hand injury, Boston's shortstop situation became a carnival. While Boston was second among 30 teams in defensive efficiency in 2008, the Sox were in the bottom five in late July (they have at least climbed up to 20th recently).
The Red Sox need a healthy Josh Beckett to make a run.
The Sox have given up worrying about the Yankees, at least until they have to play them in the ALCS. Since June 11, when the Red Sox had won their first eight meetings against New York and there were silly suggestions the Sox were in the Yanks' heads, the Yankees are 30 games over .500 and have outscored their opponents by 128 runs in 86 games, while the Red Sox are 14 games over .500 and have outscored their opponents by 71 runs in 82 games.
Yet there is a sense the Red Sox believe they can win the wild card and go deep into October. "We just play it out every day and battle," Youkilis said. "We know we haven't played our best yet."
Still, this team's future hinges on several ifs:
If Beckett pitches as he did all through the 2007 season, and as he did when he went on his 14-2 run earlier this season. If Jon Lester continues to be one of the game's premier pitchers. If Buchholz is what he has been for six starts (in Hall of Famer Jim Palmer's estimation, "There isn't a pitcher in the league with his stuff in terms of four pitches that are all way above average"). If the bullpen, which has the best ERA in the American League, carries through the season and playoffs and picks up whoever is in the No. 4 spot in the rotation: Matsuzaka, Byrd, Wakefield or Bowden. If Billy Wagner, Daniel Bard, Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito and Ramon Ramirez are all in sync in front of Jonathan Papelbon.
If it all falls into place, the Sox have a chance.
Beckett admitted this weekend he had been "just a little off" the past couple of weeks. He had the flu, then he'd felt weak and ill for two weeks, which might have a lot to do with his allowing 27 runs in 26 1/3 innings over five starts before Saturday's impressive outing against the Rays (1 run in 5 innings of a rain-shortened game). Typical of Beckett, he refused to make excuses, but also said, "I am not getting the strength and power to follow through on my curveball. I have to get that back."
When Beckett is really good, his curveball is a huge weapon; in his last five starts prior to Saturday, opponents were hitting .377 on that pitch, and his percentage of throwing the curveball in the first two pitches of opponents' at-bats had declined every month of the season. "I will get things straightened out," he said.
Because the Red Sox pounded rookie Wade Davis for eight runs in the third inning on Saturday, Beckett was able to work on his breaking ball.
Even if the Sox get good pitching, will their revamped lineup beat the good pitching of other teams? As The Boston Globe's Tony Massarotti points out, they are 34-13 against the soft underbelly of Baltimore, Toronto and the National League, while posting a mediocre 49-45 record against everyone else. But since July 23, lost in Jacoby Ellsbury's intrepid baserunning is the fact that he has made adjustments and had a .377 on-base percentage in those 46 games. Pedroia, freed from his 22-game hell in the leadoff hole and with Martinez behind him, has been back to his two-year norm.
Bay, who was leading the league in RBIs at the end of May, went through a 58-game stretch in June and July in which he hit .213; in August and September, his OPS has skied to 1.071 and he has passed the 100-RBI level. Drew is Drew: 20 homers with a productive .878 OPS. Lowell went into the Tampa series with 27 RBIs in 30 games, dabbling near .300. While Gonzalez is not Hanley Ramirez, he is an improvement on the sub-.300 OBP they were getting out of the nine-hole. Rocco Baldelli and Casey Kotchman provide viable depth. Varitek has been a major part of two ring ceremonies. Boston has crept up to third in the league in runs.
It has been a long, strange trip to get here, with three weeks remaining and the team having a chance to reach the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.
Who would've thought Bay would homer off Mariano Rivera with two outs in the bottom of the ninth? Or that Ortiz would go until May 20 without a homer, and hit .143 with a .520 OPS in May? That they would go 8-0 against the Yankees, but beat them only once since? Or they would be five games up on June 24, but would go .500 in July while playing Baltimore, Seattle, Oakland, Kansas City, Toronto and Texas? Or that they would already lose five games in the standings in July at the trading deadline, before that six-game disaster in The Trop and Yankee Stadium?
Now they really don't know what to expect. They were 2-4 against the Angels in the first half of the season. They are 2-7 against Texas, should there be a play-in game.
There was a time in spring training when some worried the Sox had too many pitchers, only to have Matsuzaka's shoulder tire, Penny and Smoltz post a combined 6.23 ERA and Paul Byrd be summoned with an SOS.
The Angels must go to Yankee Stadium for a makeup game Monday before traveling to Boston. The Rangers and Angels play each other seven more times, which seemingly helps the Red Sox.
For Boston fans, it isn't enough to finish ahead of Texas, which is no foregone conclusion. The overmarketed "Nation" expects a showdown with the Yankees in the ALCS next month.
For now, it comes down to the final 20 games, half of which are away from Fenway. It starts with Matsuzaka against Lackey, which goes to show you never can tell.
Peter Gammons serves as a studio analyst on "Baseball Tonight" and Baseball Today. He also provides Diamond Notes and other reports for "SportsCenter." Gammons has been a senior writer for ESPN The Mag since December 1999 and contributes to ESPN.com.