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Solid Pitching Needed to Send Red Sox to World Series

By Vivek Rao

COLUMNIST

This year’s edition of the Boston Red Sox is one of the most prolific offensive teams in recent memory, scoring more than six runs per game, impressive even in this hitter’s era. Meanwhile, ace pitcher Pedro Martinez, arguably the best pitcher in baseball over the last five seasons, has put together a 2.32 earned run average and a 0.214 batting average, both numbers placing him near the top of the list of league leaders.

All of this suggests that the Red Sox, one of the top teams in the American League, should be able to bank on a win nearly every time Martinez steps on the rubber. Simply put, the law of averages suggests that they should score a bunch of runs, give up only a few, and coast to victory. Rather inexplicably, however, the Sox have a rather mediocre 12-10 record in games started by Martinez, a mark that must improve if the team is to beat out the likes of Oakland, Seattle, or New York for a playoff berth.

The reasons for this dearth of success are manifold. There is Pedro’s fragile arm, and his subsequent inability to pitch deep into games. Close behind is a glut of early-season debacles by the now resurrected bullpen.

Finally, and perhaps most inexplicably, is the juggernaut batting lineup’s tendency to slip into a funk when the ace is on the hill, resulting in a deadly lack of run support. Martinez’s last three starts have shown that while some things have changed, others will remain obstacles that the Red Sox will simply have to overcome.

On Aug. 6, Pedro stepped on the Fenway Park mound to face the Anaheim Angels, a team he had dominated in the past, posting a 7-1 record and a 1.47 ERA. Martinez came out firing, holding the Angels scoreless through the first five innings, while retiring the bulk of batters via the strikeout or harmless ground ball. The offense, as is becoming routine, struggled to support Martinez, making mediocre Angels hurler Aaron Sele look like a potential All-Star. The Sox finally broke through with a two-run fourth inning, the highlight coming on an RBI triple from David Ortiz, who has quickly become the glue that holds the club together in the clubhouse.

As the innings wore on, Martinez found himself with an efficient pitch count, and when he walked to the dugout after the eighth, sporting a 3-1 lead, he had thrown a mere 108 pitches. Earlier in the year, manager Grady Little no doubt would have rested his injury-prone star, but on this night, there was no doubt who was going to pitch the ninth.

After the offense tacked on an insurance run, Martinez found himself three outs away from just his second complete game of the year. The pesky Angels refused to go down quietly, however, and they narrowed the deficit to 4-2, while placing runners on second and third with two outs. Martinez, though, showed the fiery grit and unmatched talent that has made him a fan favorite. Facing Tim Salmon, Martinez threw his six speediest fastballs of the night, the last one, his 128th pitch, registering at 96 mph. Salmon could only watch the third strike, and the Sox came out with a memorable victory.

The fun was short-lived, however, as Little’s decision to stretch Martinez against the Angels forced him to restrict his ace to a tight pitch count in his next start, a crucial battle against Oakland and its top pitcher this year, Tim Hudson. While Pedro pitched respectably, he lasted only five innings, and the offense could muster absolutely nothing against Hudson, who is beginning to merit serious consideration as a Cy Young contender, but whose recent injuries have put that possible title in doubt. Final score: 4-0, A’s.

The team’s tried and true Pedro-related weaknesses -- Martinez’s delicate physical condition, poor run support, and shoddy bullpen work -- all resurfaced, and the result was not pretty. Yet, there is hope that the situation will improve over the stretch run. Pedro’s most recent start, a 5-1 victory against the Seattle Mariners, another playoff contender, provided a solid model of how Red Sox fans should hope their team performs when Martinez is on the hill.

First, Pedro pitched seven efficient and effective innings, allowing one run on three hits, while tossing just 102 pitches.

Second, the offense, led by Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller, put up a good showing against the talented Joel Piniero, not exactly tearing the cover off the ball, but putting together some timely hits and scratching out all five runs by the sixth inning.

Third, the now dominant bullpen nailed down the win, with recently-acquired relief aces Scott Williamson and Byung-Hyun Kim each chipping in with an inning of scoreless ball. This triumvirate -- seven strong innings from Martinez, modest offensive production, and solid relief -- is a Golden Triangle that could allow Pedro to remain rested and dominant throughout the remainder of the season.

And that is something that must occur if the Red Sox are to have a chance. No matter how many runs the offense scores or how many top relievers general manager Theo Epstein acquires, the bottom line remains that if Boston is to consider itself a -- gulp -- World Series contender, it must get outstanding pitching from its top tandem -- Martinez and the slumping Derek Lowe -- and it must win the vast majority of the games they start. Funny how the 85-year-old hopes of a region can hinge on just two arms. Curious how those two arms just might be strong enough this time around to shoulder that burden.