MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

As pitching goes, so go the Red Sox

Bauman: As pitching goes, so go the Red Sox

As pitching goes, so go the Red Sox
Any club can run short of pitching at a crucial juncture -- even an elite team, a team that looked like a pennant-winner not only in the preseason predictions, but through much of the regular season.

We speak here of the Red Sox, who have been 5-14 in September entering tonight's game against the Orioles, an almost unthinkable stretch for a team as talented as this one. But the Red Sox, through a mixture of pitching injuries and pitching ineffectiveness, have become much more mortal than many of us previously believed.

But this is hardly an obituary. The Red Sox still have a two-game lead over the Rays in the race for the American League Wild Card berth. The talent in Boston's lineup, even with some regulars nicked up, remains somewhere between imposing and scary.

At the end of August, when the Red Sox were still in first place in the AL East, their lead over the Rays was a full nine games. When it mattered most, the Red Sox went 1-6 against the Rays this month, giving Tampa Bay an entirely new life. Due credit must be given to the Rays for staying the course and believing in themselves and their chances when many people had forgotten that they still existed in terms of this race. The Rays have two division titles and an American League pennant in the last three seasons, remarkable achievements for a franchise operating at a much, much less lofty revenue level than either the Red Sox or Yankees.

The Red Sox improved themselves in the offseason, primarily with the addition of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, whose left-handed, all-fields stroke is perfect for Fenway Park. His previous offensive numbers had been artificially depressed because he played home games at PETCO Park, one of the game's most pitcher-friendly venues. Even though the acquisition of left fielder Carl Crawford has not worked out as planned, the Red Sox have baseball's highest-scoring offense. Jacoby Ellsbury has added power to his game. Dustin Pedroia has returned to his own MVP level of play. David Ortiz is having a rebirth of sorts. The individuals are impressive, but the whole still manages to exceed the sum of the parts. What a group.

The problem has been in the other half of the innings, with the pitching, particularly the starting pitching. In 19 games this month, the Red Sox have given up 123 runs, or 6.47 per game. As wonderful as the Boston offense is, its average for the season is 5.47 runs per game. Is it all as simple as Clay Buchholz being out with a back injury? Not quite.

Buchholz's absence obviously hurts. He was 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA last season. On the other hand, Josh Beckett has pitched with the most consistency he has demonstrated since 2007. And Jon Lester has turned in work comparable to the excellent level he had already established.

There have been unmet expectations. Most notable among them would be John Lackey and his 6.49 ERA. The Red Sox won the night half of a day-night doubleheader against the Orioles on Monday night, 18-9. The Red Sox scored 11 runs in the first three innings, but Lackey, Boston's starter, did not qualify for the victory since he lasted 4 1/3 innings, while giving up eight earned runs. It was the eighth time this month that Boston's starting pitcher failed to go five innings.

The young pitchers pressed into service -- Kyle Weiland and Andrew Miller -- have not been effective enough. The starter at the other end of the team's demographic, Tim Wakefield, remains a beloved Boston figure and did win his 200th game, but at age 45, he is not at a point where he is going to turn this thing around as a solo endeavor.

Mid-season acquisition Erik Bedard has pitched adequately for the Sox but has been limited by the residual effects of a knee injury. With 17 days since his last start, perhaps he can take his game to the level the Red Sox were hoping for in the first place.

Out in the bullpen, Daniel Bard, one of the game's most reliable and overpowering eighth-inning setup men, had some atypical difficulties, losing in three straight appearances. But he bounced back recently and is far from being anything like a recurrent problem. The recurrent problem would be the starting pitching.

All things being equal, simply adequate pitching would get the Red Sox into the postseason, even with a three-game road series looming against the Yankees. Perhaps Buchholz can return before the regular season's end and pitch with something resembling his usual effectiveness. Perhaps Bedard can pitch to his previous best level. The Red Sox, under this scenario could have four more-than-capable starters and anything could be possible.

But if the pitching continues as it has for the first 19 games of the month, that's a ticket to an October on the golf course, even for the Red Sox. When the worldwide pitching shortage strikes, no one is immune.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.