Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Red Sox Rotation Still intact for 2008

BOSTON -- If there is one thing the Red Sox proved emphatically in both 2004 and '07, it's that quality starting pitching will take you a long way. In fact, if the other areas of your club are strong enough, an elite starting rotation will put you right over the top.
So as the Red Sox go after their third World Series championship in five years, their starting rotation -- provided it stays healthy -- once again looks to be a major strength.
In Josh Beckett, the Red Sox not only have one of the best aces in the game, but also a man who is likely entering his peak at the age of 27.
Ask Curt Schilling what the key to the 2007 postseason run was and the righty doesn't even blink.
"For me, it was the first fastball Josh threw," Schilling said. "It was the proverbial [case of taking] the bull by the horns. We had him either on the mound or in our pocket for future use whenever we needed him. I thought he set the tone in a way that very few guys ever have or could. We're down, 3-1, against Cleveland. We knew -- I think we knew with him on the mound -- it was going to be 3-2. Guys like that, they affect the staff, they affect the team. For me, that was it."
Backed by a 20-win season in 2007, Beckett finished second to Indians left-hander C.C. Sabathia in the American League Cy Young Award race. Once October came around, Beckett took it to an even higher level, going 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA.
Of course, Beckett didn't do it by himself last year and he won't be able to do so in 2008. That's where the rest of the rotation comes in.
The pitcher to watch in Spring Training will be Daisuke Matsuzaka. After his well-chronicled arrival from Japan, Matsuzaka had his share of peaks and valleys in 2007, which was understandable considering all of the baseball and cultural adjustments he had to make.
Will Matsuzaka be able to make a leap similar to the one Beckett made in his second season in Boston? If so, the Red Sox would have a 1-2 punch as strong as any in baseball.

Boston Red Sox
• Catchers: In Varitek we trust• Corner IF: Sox spoiled by success• Middle IF: Second season for combo• Outfielders: Talent all around• Starters: Beckett leads elite staff• Bullpen: Feb. 6• DH/Bench: Feb. 13
And even with Matsuzaka's inconsistency, he still won 15 games and had 201 strikeouts, capping his season with a strong performance in Game 3 of the World Series.
One of the best late-season stories surrounding the 2007 Red Sox was the way Schilling remade himself. After coming off the disabled list, Schilling was hopeful he would regain his velocity. When that didn't happen, he adjusted, learning how to thrive on location and improved offspeed stuff.
If there were any doubts Schilling's new approach could survive against the toughest competition, they were laid to rest in the postseason when Schilling once again came up big, going 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA in four starts.
The 41-year-old Schilling has stated numerous times that 2008 will be his last Major League season. That said, you can be sure Schilling will be highly motivated to close out his stellar career in strong fashion.
In case you forgot, there is another 40-something pitcher in the Boston rotation, and that is knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. You might have also forgotten that Wakefield matched a career-high with 17 wins last year.
Assuming Wakefield is over the back/shoulder woes that plagued him late in 2007, he will once again eat up innings and probably reach double digits in wins.
Wakefield will once again have long-trusted batterymate Doug Mirabelli behind the plate.
The Sox could have an old-fashioned Spring Training battle on their hands for the fifth spot in the rotation. Left-hander Jon Lester was last seen earning the win in Game 4 of the World Series. This spring, he comes in without the burden of regaining his strength following chemotherapy treatments. This time around, Lester will be at full strength and determined to break camp with the Red Sox.
But he could get a stiff battle from the team's top pitching prospect, right-hander Clay Buchholz. How could anyone forget the no-hitter Buchholz threw against the Orioles on Sept. 1? Still, Buchholz only has three Major League starts under his belt and, no-hitter or not, he is still in the development phase.
Buchholz will be heard from at some point in 2008. He added muscle and improved his winter training program.

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