Though some baseball pundits and many Red Sox fans believe that this weekend’s results were irrelevant – feeling that this team has no chance to reach the playoffs and that the front office should trade selected veterans and call up promising prospects – Red Sox decision makers were closely watching the three-game series at Yankee Stadium.
Had the Yankees swept the series, perhaps first-year Boston general manager Ben Cherington would have been swayed to unload veterans and not pursue a starting pitcher to bolster the rotation.
Instead, the Red Sox defeated the Yankees, 3-2 in 10 innings on Sunday, and claimed two out of three. Boston returned to .500 at 51-51, pulled within 9.5 games of the Yankees in the American League East standings and now sit four games behind the Angels in the race for the second wild card spot.
Believe it or not, the wild card standings indicate the Red Sox are still contenders. With 60 games left, look for Boston to acquire a starting pitcher to improve its rotation and a right-handed bat to upgrade its bench.
Ultimately, Boston’s post-season aspirations rest on the desperately-needed improvement from Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. On Saturday, Lester allowed four runs and four hits in six innings in a game that saw the Red Sox squander a 6-1 lead before rallying for an 8-6 victory over the Yankees.
Lester did not factor into the decision, but with the win Boston is now 14-24 in games started by Lester and Beckett this year.
In the remaining 60 games, Lester and Beckett must pitch effectively enough to put the Red Sox in a position to win the games they start. That means avoiding trouble in the first inning and putting their team in an early hole.
On Sunday, Boston received another impressive performance from their most reliable starter, 24-year-old left-hander Felix Doubront. Entering Sunday night’s start at Yankee Stadium, Doubront had saved his best work for Boston’s heated rival. In two starts against the Yankees this season, Doubront had struck out 13 and walked four while surrendering just four earned runs in 12.1 innings.
In Sunday’s 3-2 Red Sox win, Doubront limited New York to one run and four hits over 6.1 innings, though he did walk five to accompany eight strikeouts. Doubront carried a shutout into the seventh inning that was spoiled when Russell Martin led off with a home run.
On the season, the Venezuela native who was saddled with injuries last year is 10-5 with a 4.37 ERA. He received a no-decision on Sunday when Alfredo Aceves served up a game-tying single to Martin in the eighth, scoring Andruw Jones (who doubled off Andrew Miller).
Though he did not get a win, Doubront once again delivered a quality start and shut down the Yankees in a game when the Red Sox needed to prevail. Boston is hopeful that Lester, the 28-year-old left-hander who has an 81-42 career record but is lugging around a 5-8 record and 5.49 ERA this season, can duplicate Doubront’s success for the rest of the season.
The Red Sox might also return 26-year-old Franklin Morales to the rotation at some point in August, giving the team three left-handed starters. In five starts this year, Morales is 2-1 with a 3.42 ERA, a 1.14 WHIP and a .220 batting average against. As a reliever, he has a 3.26 ERA in 27 games, and opponents are hitting .216 off him.
With Boston’s bullpen depth that includes arms like the rehabbing Andrew Bailey and left-hander Rich Hill; and viable Pawtucket relievers like Daniel Bard, Clayton Mortensen, Chris Carpenter and prospect Alex Wilson, the Sox can afford to move Morales back into the rotation and fill his bullpen spot from within.
If Cherington acquires a starting pitcher, Morales will likely remain in the pen and serve as rotation depth, unless the team decides to trade Cook and move Morales into the veteran sinkerballer’s spot.
The Red Sox could get David Ortiz back from the disabled list this week, which will fuel a lineup that has been listless without him. One way to further enhance the lineup is replacing Mike Aviles with 26-year-old sensation Pedro Ciriaco at shortstop.
On Saturday night, Ciriaco belted an RBI triple (that was misplayed by Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson) in the top of the ninth inning which led to an 8-6 Boston victory. In the top of the 10th inning on Sunday, Ciriaco blooped an RBI single off David Robertson to give the Red Sox a 3-2 lead they would not relinquish.
In 61 at-bats for Boston, Ciriaco is hitting .349 and has delivered timely hits, many of which have been struck against the Yankees. A versatile infielder who can proficiently play second, shortstop and third, Ciriaco is giving the Red Sox a spark at a time when Aviles is battling a toe injury and is batting .252 with a woeful .275 on-base percentage.
At times, Aviles has also looked shaky at shortstop. The Red Sox can improve their roster by placing Aviles on the DL, calling up defensive shortstop whiz Jose Iglesias and riding the hot hand by keeping Ciriaco in the starting lineup.
The Red Sox and Cherington are sure to make news by Tuesday’s trade deadline, but it won’t be because they are unloading veterans to focus on 2013. With the team’s surplus of relievers and outfielders, some veterans (like Matt Albers, Vicente Padilla, Ryan Sweeney and Daniel Nava) could be traded, but only to clear spots for players who can help Boston contend for a wild card spot.
Boston might be sellers, but not because they are giving up on the season. Taking two out of three at Yankee Stadium over the weekend prevented that from happening.