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Sunday, August 19, 2012
Red Sox not bailing on rotation

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

NEW YORK -- These were bold words from general manager Ben Cherington, words that an audience trained to blame Josh Beckett and Jon Lester for the Boston Red Sox's also-ran status are liable to choke on.

Cherington was asked before Sunday's 4-1 loss to the New York Yankees, a game which left Beckett with just one win in his past 13 starts, whether he regarded Lester, Beckett and Clay Buchholz as "foundational pieces" to next year's starting rotation.

"Sure," Cherington said. "It's no secret our starting pitching has not been as good as it used to be, if you look at the entirety of the season. Part of improving it is simply to help our guys get back closer to what they've been in the past, and those are key guys.

"If there are other ways to improve in the offseason, we'll look at that, but there's a lot of performance upside simply with the guys here without adding anything to it. Our job is to get the most out of them. I know it won't be for any lack of effort on their part."

For those who point to the team's 17-29 record in games started by Lester and Beckett as the fundamental reason for the team's decline, this will be taken as a doomsday pronouncement, the equivalent of writing off next season as well. This is especially true in the case of Beckett, who is seen through a far more unforgiving prism from the outside than he is viewed by those who go to work with him every day.

Did the Red Sox explore moving Beckett at the trade deadline? Of course. Could they still move him this winter? Sure. Do they view him as the root of all evil, the way his fiercest critics do? Of course not. Are they certain that he is better than the pitcher with the 5-11 record and 5.23 ERA this season? "Certain" might be too strong a word. But with Beckett signed to two more years at $15.75 million per and a history of back issues, the Red Sox recognize that he may remain a part of their future. And they have seen Beckett bounce back before, the way he did after an injury-filled 2010 season.

Beckett was asked if he saw himself as a "foundational part." "That's not my decision," he said. "[But] that's great. I like that he believes in me."

Josh Beckett
Josh Beckett, who fell to 5-11 with a 5.23 ERA on Sunday, is due to be paid $15.75 million by the Red Sox for each of the next two seasons.

This is no time to lose faith, Lester said when apprised of Cherington's comments. The regular bashing the Sox left-hander was taking earlier in the season has been eased by a string of recent strong starts, but he too has been stung by the proposition that he and Beckett sabotaged the season.

"Just because people have one bad year doesn't mean they're horsespit pitchers or horsespit players," he said. "People have always had ups and downs. We're not robots. We're not going to go out every single year and produce and have unbelievable years. That's why guys have career years and career lows. The game humbles you. I would hope they have that confidence in us. I don't see why you would throw somebody to the wayside just because they had a bad year."

But that is precisely the course recommended by many, especially in regard to Beckett, who could have obliterated the chicken-and-beer fable by pitching well this season but instead has perpetuated it by stumbling as badly as he has. Lester was asked about the difficulty of making the kinds of transitions that Beckett has to make at this stage of his career.

"That's more a question for him," Lester said, "but people go through a point in their career where, yeah, they had to make adjustments. But I still think Josh is a power pitcher. Just because the velocity doesn't show that, just because you don't throw 97, doesn't mean you can't strike people out. I've seen guys throw that hard who don't strike a lot of people out. Look at Clay: He doesn't strike out a lot of people, but he gets a lot of ground balls with a little sinker, a little cutter, a good curveball and a contact changeup.

"Just because you don't throw 100 anymore doesn't make you a bad pitcher. I think a lot of people have jumped on him because his velocity has gone down. He's also thrown almost 2,000 innings in the big leagues. This isn't the steroid era anymore. You're not going to maintain 97 till you're 45. That's not going to happen."

Yes, Lester said, when you throw hard you can sometimes get away with a few more mistakes.

"But you still have to locate," he said. "I've had my stuff [high-speed fastballs] turned around earlier in my career and so has Josh. He was throwing 96 in 2006 and gave up more home runs than anyone in the league.

"You still have to locate, you still have to get the ball down, you still have to change speeds."

And some years, he said, things work out better than others.

"There's a reason why guys don't have career years every year," he said. "Everybody struggles. Derek Jeter struggles. Robinson Cano struggles. Cliff Lee got sent down to the minor leagues. So did Roy Halladay. You're talking Cy Young winners.

"People who are supposed to be the elite of the elite go through struggles. It's part of it. David [Ortiz]. This game does not discriminate on who you are in terms of going through struggles. And there's no answers in this game. You can't just go, 'I looked at film and fixed it.' You still have to go out and get results.

"Everything's based off results. Josh threw the ball pretty good tonight, but the reason it's a bad outing is because we lost."

After he beat the Yankees on Saturday, Lester said, "When you get good results, everything looks good." He believes that one reason he has been judged more severely this season is because of a handful of very bad starts.

"Those get magnified," he said. "When you have one of them, you can bounce back. When you have four or five, it's difficult to turn in some decent numbers.

"But I'm more concerned now about the innings I pitch and giving my team a chance to win, and Josh did that tonight. That's our job as starting pitchers. We are the ones who get the L's and W's next to own names. There have been plenty of times I've gotten a W that I didn't deserve to get. But sometimes it's not how you pitch but when you pitch."

And on Sunday night, Ben Cherington said he believes that Lester and Beckett can still be effective pitchers in 2013. A skeptical Nation undoubtedly will let him know that his is not a popular position.