Twist of fate may derail Red Sox staff for stretch run

Josh Beckett's face says it all as he exits Monday's game with a sprained ankle. (AP/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese)

During the fourth inning of Monday’s game, Josh Beckett left with a sprained ankle. After 3.2 innings of scoreless ball, Beckett came gingerly off the mound, perhaps taking the Boston Red Sox hopes of a deep playoff run with him.

The Sox went on to lose the contest on an 11th-inning, walk-off HR by Toronto Blue Jays rookie Brett Lawrie. His blast scored the only run of the game and was just the latest gaff experienced by Boston. Just a week ago the Sox were in first place in the AL East. Only a game and a half above the rival New York Yankees, a slim lead, but a lead nonetheless.

Over the next six days, both New York and the Texas Rangers took two of three at Fenway. The Rangers did so by scoring 28 runs, including a 10-run shutout on Friday night. Not a great sign, seeing as both opponents are most likely en route to the playoffs.

Beckett’s injury poses major issues for an already questionable pitching staff. The big Texan has been the ace of the staff thus far, and outside of Jon Lester, he offered the only consistent starting pitching on the team. Without Beckett, the Sox may as well forego any thoughts of a World Series.

Since Clay Bucholz landed on the DL, the Sox have gotten serviceable performance from a number of guys. Stalwart knuckleballer Tim Wakefield has gone just 2-3 since the All-Star break. Factoring in a W, where he yielded seven earned runs, his performance has been far less than outstanding.

In light of Wake’s subpar outings, manager Terry Francona has turned to Andrew Miller. The former first-round pick has logged a deceiving 6-2 record. Miller had his best outing of the year against Texas on August 25, throwing six shutout innings. In just his next turn in the rotation, Miller lasted a measly inning and a third, getting shelled for six earned runs by the same Ranger lineup. It is difficult to tell what kind of stuff Miller will bring to the mound from start to start.

The Sox medical staff may be kicking themselves for not clearing Rich Harden. Especially with Erik Bedard’s less-than-stellar performance since joining the staff. Although, upon closer look, Harden’s most noteworthy stat since the deadline has been giving up one of the record-setting three grand slams in a 22-9 defeat to the Yanks. To make matters worse, Bedard will skip a start this week. Francona wants to give him time to “regroup.” Alarm bells are ringing, the guy needs rest after making a whopping six starts?

Help could come from the recent roster expansion, but I wouldn’t wager on it. The Sox filled out the roster with names like Felix Doubront and Kyle Weiland. Both have made spot starts this season or last. Doubront has battled injury in the minors this year and figures to play more of a relief role. Don’t be surprised to see Weiland get the starting nod in the midst of the pennant race. He has shown flashes of front-line-starter stuff but is relatively unproven at the major league level. He’ll get a start on Friday against the Rays.

Believe it or not, baby-faced Bucholz may be on the mend as well. In-game analysis from NESN revealed Bucholz has been doing some long toss and is hopeful he will be available for the playoffs. He would certainly provide a much-needed boost for a staff in desperate need of stability.

GM Theo Epstein allowed the waiver wire deadline to expire without addressing any pitching needs. His one addition coming in was utility man Conor Jackson from Oakland. That acquisition was not the splash that  Sox loyalists were pulling for. It felt a bit like that scene in Casino when Nicky had to wait through a few days of beatings just to hear Charlie M! Conor Jackson! You made me stick your head in a vice just to hear Conor Jackson?

A week ago, the Sox were a lock for the playoffs and a serious contender for the World Series title. Now, the doomsday predictions from the ever-critical talking heads have the Sox locked in duel with the Rays and even the Angels for the wild card. Don’t despair Fenway Faithful, as of Tuesday, the Sox sit comfortably seven and a half games out front for the wild card. A full collapse seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened. I’d give the Rays a slight edge over the Angels, as they still have seven head-to-head matchups with the Sox.

The Sox bats should manage to stave off the competition, but if Beckett misses more than one start it may be by the skin of their teeth. Not too mention the prospects of entering the playoffs Beckett-less would all but assure a first-round exit.

Judging by the current state affairs, that would leave a three-man rotation of Lester, John Lackey and Bedard. Possible first-round opponents Texas and Detroit must be salivating at taking a shot at Lackey in game two of a short series.

I guess it’s wait and see time. New Englanders will breathe a collective sigh of relief if Beckett returns Sunday. A one-two punch of Beckett and Lester is as formidable as any combination the AL has to offer. A healthy Beckett should assure a strong entrance into the playoffs and yield nothing less than a trip to the ALCS.

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