Commentary

Red Sox approaching fever pitch

If Boston's starting rotation doesn't shape up, changes must be made

Updated: July 22, 2012, 1:49 AM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Major league baseball's trade deadline is less than 10 days away, and no doubt Boston Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington is working the phones, trying to figure out whether there's a transaction he can make to help this club get better.

[+] EnlargeAaron Cook
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesAaron Cook was a tough-luck loser Saturday, but can he be part of a playoff-contending rotation?

It's not hard to understand -- with the Red Sox 48-47 and only a half-game ahead of the last-place Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East after Saturday's 7-3 loss at Fenway Park -- that it's not Boston's offense that needs help.

It's the pitching.

If the Red Sox want to contend in 2012 and earn a postseason berth for the first time since 2009, pitching depth should be a focus for Cherington.

Even though there's been talk that the Sox are in on the Matt Garza sweepstakes, a league source said there's probably only a 25 percent chance that the Red Sox will acquire the right-hander, who has a 5-7 record with a 3.91 ERA in 18 starts for the Chicago Cubs. (Garza exited his Saturday start after three innings with cramping in his right triceps.)

Meanwhile, Clay Buchholz is looking like the Clay Buchholz of 2010 (17-7, 2.33 ERA), and Felix Doubront is pitching consistently and effectively.

If Aaron Cook can continue to give the Red Sox a chance to win every time out, and if Jon Lester and Josh Beckett can return to form, Cherington should feel comfortable telling opposing GMs, "I'm good."

But those are some big ifs.

In his fifth start, Cook suffered a hard-luck loss Saturday after he allowed five runs (only three earned) on four hits with one walk and one strikeout in 6 1/3 innings of work.

[+] EnlargeJarrod Saltalamacchia
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesJarrod Saltalamacchia, left, homered Saturday to break an 0-for-14 slump.

"Cook was pretty good," Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said. "He had ground balls going and kept them at bay for a while. He started off the seventh with a couple of comebackers, and the walk he might have lost a little concentration, but they only hit two balls hard against him, and they both went over the fence. It was a pretty good outing."

Cook cruised through the first two innings, retiring all six batters in order on groundouts as his sinker was working. The Red Sox rewarded their starter with three runs in the bottom of the second thanks to a three-run homer by catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. His 18th homer of the season snapped an 0-for-14 slump.

With the way Cook was pitching, it appeared the Red Sox would get through the Blue Jays with few worries. Toronto scored one run in the third inning, but Cook retired the next six batters in the fourth and fifth innings.

Boston still had a 3-1 lead when Cook retired the first two batters in the top of the sixth, but then he walked Colby Rasmus, setting up a two-run homer by Edwin Encarnacion to tie the game at 3.

Cook allowed a solo home run to J.P. Arencibia in the top of the seventh as Toronto gained a 4-3 lead. The Jays pushed across two more in the seventh and another in the ninth for a 7-3 advantage, and Boston couldn't respond.

"They were pitches that came back over the middle of the plate," Cook said of the two home runs. "If I had two pitches to take back the whole game, those would be the only two. I felt, other than that, I was in a good rhythm and putting the ball where I wanted to. It was two bad pitches, and they made me pay for them tonight."

The Red Sox will try to avoid a three-game sweep Sunday, when Lester (5-7, 4.80 ERA) takes the ball for his 20th start of the season.

[+] EnlargeJason Varitek
Bob DeChiara/US PresswireJason Varitek thinks Jon Lester and Josh Beckett will be just fine down the stretch.

After Lester's previous start, in which he allowed six runs on seven hits with three walks and four strikeouts in a 7-5 loss to the Chicago White Sox, the left-hander expressed frustration. The perennial winner said there's nothing more he can change that he hasn't already tweaked this season.

His problems don't seem to be physical; Lester and Valentine both maintain that the pitcher is in tip-top shape.

Valentine, however, admitted Saturday afternoon that Lester and pitching coach Bob McClure were recently working on a "little mechanical issue," and hoped it would be a step in the right direction when Lester takes the ball Sunday.

Before the loss Saturday, the Red Sox honored former catcher and captain Jason Varitek in a pregame ceremony. No. 33 said afterward that he hasn't allowed himself to be detached from the team. He pays close attention, especially to the pitching staff.

When asked for his assessment on the struggles of Lester and Beckett, Varitek answered like he was still the starting catcher.

"I know the outing before last, Josh threw pretty doggone well. His last one wasn't too, too good but nobody has the tendency to look at what was most recent, and Josh, for the most part, you put the majority together, he's done pretty well," Varitek said.

"Jonny, it hasn't been easy for him, but sometimes when things aren't easy, maybe the next two months could be. His stuff is there, and it looks like he's got good stuff."

Like so many times during his career, Varitek talked about the importance of execution and command. He's also focusing on what both pitchers are doing well, instead of the numbers.

"We stay in the moment of negativity, so to speak, that we can all catch ourselves in that same turmoil of what's wrong, instead of what's right," Varitek said. "The two of them continue to focus on what's right, not what's wrong, and they'll be just fine."

Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino recently said Red Sox ownership has empowered Cherington with the right to make a "bold" move before the deadline. Whether the GM believes he needs to pull off a major deal or is content to go with what he's got remains to be seen.

There's no denying that Beckett has been pretty unpredictable this season. Lester, for his part, has the ability and the desire to turn things around. If he can do so quickly, starting Sunday and then again when the Sox play the Yankees in New York next weekend, the Red Sox should be in good shape.

If not?

It probably will be time for Cherington to do something bold.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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