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Pitching Aplenty on Red Sox Menu

By Todd M. Civin

Though towering home runs and double-digit scores are the top dishes on every fan's shopping list, baseball connoisseurs know that "pitching wins championships."

When you take that recipe and add a dose of timely hitting, a pinch of defense and speed, and a mix of youth and experience, it begins to taste like World Series fare.

The Boston Red Sox prepare to open their 2009 menu with the deepest pitching staff they've had in recent history. Several slices of experienced arms sandwiched around a couple pieces of Grade A youth make a meal fit for the most discriminating of tastes.

The top of the starting rotation features the formidable trio of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Though not grabbing as much offseason ink as the Yankee three of C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Chien-Ming Wang, the Sox triumvirate will certainly match up well with any AL staff.

Beckett is coming off a disappointing 12-10 season in which he battled injuries throughout much of the second half. The Sox need Beckett to return to the form of their world championship 2007 season, when he overpowered American League lineups on his way to a 20-7 record with a 3.27 ERA.

Though spring training does not tell the whole story, Beckett looked impressive in seven appearances on his way to a 2-0 record in 27 innings in Ft. Myers.

Lester is coming off a very solid 16-6 campaign, where he was unarguably the ace of the Sox staff. In his first full season in the majors, Lester threw 210 innings in 33 starts, including a no-hitter vs. Kansas City. Lester was 11-1 at Fenway, a park that for many years was viewed as unfriendly to left-handed pitchers.

Lester has added a changeup to his arsenal, and many experts view him as a Cy Young favorite.

The much-maligned Matsuzaka skated his way to an 18-3 record with a 2.90. It is viewed by many as a "soft 18-3," since Dice-K seemed to spend much of the season pitching out of the tightest of jams.

Watching Dice-K pitch every fifth day left many fans calling him the Houdini of Hardball, as he seemed to escape from more tight situations than the famed escape artist. He also won his second consecutive World Baseball Classic MVP award, pitching Japan to the WBC championship.

The No. 4 and 5 positions look like they'll be held down by longtime veterans Tim Wakefield and Brad Penny. Don't be shocked, however, if young Clay Buchholz works his way into the mix.

Wakefield is entering his 15th campaign with the Sox and has posted double-digit wins in all but five of them. Even in last season's 10-11 injury plagued campaign, the knuckleballer floated pitches in 181 innings and had an earned-run average just north of 4.00.

Penny was signed during the offseason to a low risk, incentive-laden contract. Penny struggled through a lost year with the Dodgers in 2008, after winning 16 games in both '06 and '07. He finished last season 6-9 with an ERA over 6.00, but has had a strong spring with the Sox and grabbed the fifth slot over Buchholz.

Penny started last season at 5-2 by May 9 before injuring his right shoulder. If healthy, many feel the Sox will have a No. 1-type starter filling out the back end of the rotation.

Buchholz will be starting the season at the Sox' Triple-A affiliate just down the road in Pawtucket, R.I. The youngster had a very disappointing 2008 season, where he went 2-9 and seemed to have lost the confidence and poise he showed during his initial campaign.

A strong spring, going 2-0 with a 2.52 ERA, gave manager Terry Francona a tough decision to make. Tito selected Penny, with Buchholz only a stone's throw away should the health of any starter fail.

A strong and experienced bullpen will leave opposing lineups scratching their heads if they don't get to Boston's starters early. Boston GM Theo Epstein has put together a mix of youth and experience make up the Boston pen.

There appears to be enough arms here to create two bullpens. Newcomers Ramon Ramirez and Takashi Saito have joined last years ensemble of Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima, and Jonathan Papelbon.

Ramirez came over from Kansas City in exchange for center fielder Coco Crisp. Though Boston fans thought they were done with players named Ramirez after sending Manny packing, they welcome Ramon's 3-2 with a 2.64 ERA in 71 appearances for the Royals.

Saito provides a quality setup man and a breather for the Sox closer, Papelbon. In just three seasons with the Dodgers, Saito had 81 saves in 91 appearances. He pitched only 5.2 innings after the All-Star break last season suffering with a sprained right elbow. Saito had an outstanding spring for Boston, though, going 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA in nine innings.

Delcarmen, Lopez, and Okajima have been a solid trio for Boston over the last several seasons. Each of the three regularly appears in 60-plus games and can be used in a variety of roles. Delcarmen has been mentioned in recent trade talks and may be the odd man out if the Sox opt to trade for help in any area.

The young slider specialist Masterson will be starting the season in the pen, quieting talk that he would make the Sox starting five. Masterson turned more than a few heads with a calm, cool, and collected playoff run for the Sox last year. He went 6-5 with a 3.16 ERA last season as a rookie, but was 1-0 with a 1.86 in nine post season appearances.

And, of course, at the back of the pen is the perpetually pumped Papelbon. Papelbon had 41 saves last season for the Sox, and had season highs in wins, saves, appearances, and innings pitched. Never one to back down from a confrontation (on the mound or in the media), Papelbon may get some much needed rest from Saito, leaving him strong as ever when called upon to close games.

And as if that isn't enough to strike fear into opposing line-ups, mid-season additions in the way of 42 year old veteran John Smoltz, Japanese phenom Junichi Tazawa, and young fireballer Michael Bowden, may be Boston's biggest strength.

Smoltz appears to be ahead of schedule in his recovery from labrum surgery, but the Sox will not rush their ace in the hole. Entering his 22nd season, and his first away from the Atlanta Braves, Smoltz enters the season with 210 big league wins as a starter and closer. If the rotation stays healthy, the Sox will be left with a log jam in the rotation when Smoltz is deemed fit to return.

Tazawa was a long shot to open the season north of Rhode Island. He had an impressive spring where he went 0-0 with a 1.00 ERA and struck out 10 in nine innings of work, and is viewed as a future addition to the Sox pen should Del Carmen be traded. He would be one of four Japanese pitchers for the Sox when he is called up.

Bowden had a cup of coffee in Boston last year and may be up for a spot start should the Sox need an additional arm. He is truly viewed as an addition to the 2010 rotation.


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