Red Sox ready for October arms race
Club counting on deep and rested pitching staff for playoff run
BOSTON -- For perspective on why the Red Sox feel optimistic about their October prospects, look no further then the last Boston entry that qualified for postseason play.
In 2005, the Red Sox were an offensive juggernaut that literally powered their way to 95 wins. By the time the bell rang for October, manager Terry Francona had only two relievers he could trust in Mike Timlin and Jonathan Papelbon.
Instead of plotting their rotation for the playoffs, the Red Sox didn't clinch a spot until the final regular season game, which left them to start a slumping Matt Clement in Game 1 at Chicago. That Red Sox team was swept in three straight, unceremoniously stripped of its status as World Series champions.
"I think we knew if we got exposed early, we could get ourselves in a bind," reflected Francona. "At the time, we had Pap really throwing well, and Timlin. But if we couldn't get there [to those guys] ... and we did get exposed. Things had to break right. We were pretty aware of that."
This time around? Well, first of all, the Red Sox have a much-deeper pitching staff two years later. And if anything, they've been overly reliant on their pitching and not the bats, which is how a team wants to be shaped this time of year.
This team will open the postseason with a 20-game winner in Josh Beckett taking the ball in Game 1. There will be some other quality arms behind him, both in the rotation and the bullpen.
But the true benefit of two years later is that Francona, pitching coach John Farrell and general manager Theo Epstein have been able to spend the entire month of September plotting their pitching in a way it is lined up perfectly for the month of October.
"I think we've all been very open with the communication, both in terms of Theo to Tito and myself, and the individual pitchers," said Farrell. "Everyone has been well aware of not just what our ultimate goal is, but how we best position each pitcher to get there."
Sure, the American League East came down to the final weekend. But backed by a 12-game lead as late as July 5, there was hardly a doubt the Red Sox would be in the postseason. That allowed the brain trust to plan things accordingly.
"Some of the things that we do, when things are going not so well, I think that's where, as a staff, we have to maintain our composure, and maybe you have to be willing to take some shots from people," said Francona. "It doesn't always work perfectly. That's why we try to make decisions not based on emotions, because you can make some tremendous mistakes. We try not to. If you really believe in what you're doing, you do what you think is right. And if you're as good as you think you are, it will kind of come out in the end."
American League Division Series schedule
|Wed., Oct. 3||6:30 p.m.||Fenway Park||TBS|
|Fri., Oct. 5||8:30 p.m.||Fenway Park||TBS|
|Sun. Oct. 7||3 p.m.||Angel Stadium||TBS|
|*Mon. Oct. 8||9:30 p.m.||Angel Stadium||TBS|
|*Wed. Oct. 10||8:30 p.m.||Fenway Park||TBS|
|Thu., Oct. 4||6:30 p.m.||Jacobs Field||TBS|
|Fri., Oct. 5||5 p.m.||Jacobs Field||TBS|
|Sun. Oct. 7||6:30 p.m.||Yankee Stadium||TBS|
|*Mon. Oct. 8||6 p.m.||Yankee Stadium||TBS|
|*Wed. Oct. 10||5 p.m.||Jacobs Field||TBS|
|* If necessary. All times ET.|
You can go all the way back to June to find the first bit of long-range planning by the Red Sox. Curt Schilling took the mound on June 18 in Atlanta and literally had no fastball. The next day, the Red Sox shut him down with shoulder tendinitis. But instead of rushing him back after a 15-day stint on the disabled list, they put him on a long, tedious process of rehabbing and re-strengthening his shoulder so that he could be performing at an optimum level again for the most important time of year.
Schilling returned to the rotation on Aug. 6, and by September, he had basically re-made himself as a pitcher. An October stalwart throughout his career, Schilling is eyeing some more postseason magic.
"I'm as confident as I can be with my stuff right now," said Schilling.
Numerous times in September, Francona altered his rotation to get his starters an extra day of rest -- sometimes more than that. Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has been more effective all year with a longer layoff, perhaps will benefit the most from that long-range planning.
Though Matsuzaka had an inconsistent September, the Red Sox have made every effort to keep his arm fresh.
"He seems to be kind of a big-game pitcher," said Sox right fielder J.D. Drew. "He's performed at a level in Japan, and now he's trying to transfer that over here."
But October success hardly starts and ends with the rotation. In recent years, bullpens have been an increasingly big factor for championships teams.
And that's why Francona has been delicate with Papelbon all year, making sure the closer does not get overworked. That's why Hideki Okajima was shut down for nearly two weeks in the middle of September with shoulder fatigue. And that's why the team took a similarly cautious approach with Eric Gagne when his arm acted up at the end of August.
Maybe if the Red Sox had handled things in more aggressive fashion, they could have maintained their double-digit lead or solidified their postseason spot earlier. But with the value of hindsight, Francona thinks all of the decisions have been no-brainers.
"I don't think we had a choice," Francona said. "It may seem like it, but I don't think in the long run you really have a choice. You do what you know is right. And again, if you don't win the World Series, there's going to be a lot of people who say, 'Oh, he really messed up.' There's a lot of good teams out there. We need to put ourselves in the best position to win now, and later. So that's what we're trying to do. It's not always very easy."
More than any other time of year, October is an arms race in baseball. The Red Sox like the way theirs stack up. The men who will be counted on the most to get the biggest outs are Beckett, Schilling, Matsuzaka, Papelbon, Okjaima, Gagne, Timlin and Manny Delcarmen.
"October is not about having a deep pitching staff," said Schilling. "October is about having three of the best starters out of the teams you're going to compete against, and your bullpen being better than everybody else's. You win in October with about six or seven pitchers -- not 11 or 12."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.