Pitching is Boston's biggest worry

The Red Sox return to October Madness as the defending champs for the first time since the Woodrow Wilson administration, writes Jayson Stark.

Updated: October 3, 2005, 12:13 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- The Idiots don't work here anymore.

Sad, isn't it? But nothing in sports is forever -- even the greatest nickname in sports history. And so, for the Boston Red Sox, as another October beckons, it's time to move on -- into another life, another dimension, another Octoberfest.

"You know," said Red Sox GM Theo Epstein on Sunday, "even idiots grow up."

Then again, since the Red Sox haven't won a World Series without a decent nickname in 87 years, we don't know yet if it's possible for them to win one just by playing baseball.

But we're about to find out. Aren't we?

David Ortiz
Big Papi celebrates a return to the postseason in a champagne-soaked Red Sox clubhouse.
On a very weird Sunday afternoon in the life of Yankees-Red Sox lore -- a day that started with Curt Schilling versus Derek Jeter, dissolved into Felix Rodriguez versus Kelly Shoppach, and was memorable mostly for the two teams combining for 14 lineup changes in a single half-inning and a wacky attack of mega-scoreboard-watching -- only one thing really mattered:

The Boston Red Sox received their official invitation to return to October Madness.

This time as the defending champs. For the first time since the Woodrow Wilson administration.

The last time the Red Sox were defending World Series champions, a stamp cost 3 cents and a gallon of gas cost a quarter -- assuming you had a car to pump it into. So you know it was kind of a while ago.

Oh, and one more thing: The last time the Red Sox were defending champs, there also was no such invention as a wild card to help them out with their title-defense plans.

But fortunately for them, Boss Steinbrenner wasn't able to get the whole wild-card deal repealed since last fall. So the Red Sox were able to blow a four-game lead over the Yankees with 21 to play -- and still manage to rationalize it in the end as a good thing.

What was the Yankees' reward for winning the AL East? How about an unwanted 3,000-mile flight to Anaheim to face an Angels team that went 14-2 down the stretch. Which was just baseball's heartfelt way of saying, "Congratulations."

The Red Sox's penalty for being the wild card, on the other hand, was a draw against the White Sox -- an outfit that did manage to avoid The Collapse of the Century last week, but also had the same record after Aug. 1 (30-28) as the Rockies.

And in one more what-exactly-was-the-bad-news development, those White Sox are conveniently located a mere one time zone away, too.

"I think it's a point good, bro," said David Ortiz on Sunday. "California wears me out. It's like going to Japan, man."

Well, the Red Sox will not be forced to beat the Yomiuri Giants, home or away, in order to defend their title. But they do look like a team that's in for a much more difficult time trying to win a second World Series than it faced trying to win the first -- even if no comebacks from 3-games-to-zilch may be required.

"We realize what we accomplished last year," said Johnny Damon after Sunday's 10-1 win over the Yankees. "We had to be good, and we had to be lucky, and we had to be mentally tough. And we know going into this year, we need the same thing. Sometimes you can play well and win. But during this stretch, you also need so much luck. And we understand that."

More than luck, though, you need pitching. And there's a big, big question about whether the Red Sox have enough of that.

Curt Schilling
Curt Schilling held the Yankees to one run over six innings in game No. 162.
They finished with a 4.74 team ERA -- the fourth-highest in the American League. That's more than half a run higher than the ERA of last year's Red Sox (4.19). But even more ominous is this fact:

Only one team in history had an ERA that high and still won a World Series -- the 2000 Yankees (4.76).

But that Yankees team had Mariano Rivera to dominate every ninth inning -- and these Red Sox have Mike Timlin, a guy who has been terrific when they needed him, but also a guy who last saved a postseason game in (gulp) 1992.

On the other hand, Epstein said, "if there's anything positive about playing in the postseason, it's that our biggest weakness is bullpen depth, and you can cover that up a little bit in the postseason."

They will try to cover it up by moving Bronson Arroyo from the rotation to that bullpen -- and pairing him with their favorite new set-up man, rookie Jonathan Papelbon, to see if they can duplicate their bullpen excellence of last fall.

But Keith Foulke, who gave up one run in 14 spectacular innings for them last October, will be hanging out in Dr. James Andrews' office, not the Boston bullpen. So to repeat, this team will need Timlin to get on one monstrous roll in October.

And then there's the rotation. It wound up with an ERA (4.56) only a quarter of a run higher than last year's rotation (4.31). But last year's Red Sox were able to toss out Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and a prime-time Curt Schilling to steamroll the Yankees and Cardinals in games that demanded nothing less.

This year's Red Sox had no starting pitchers who finished in the top 10 in the league in ERA or strikeouts. So even though Tim Wakefield won 16 and David Wells won 15 and Schilling stepped up to twirl six innings of one-run baseball Sunday, there are doubts.

Schilling still had just two starts all season (out of 11) in which he piled up more strikeouts than he allowed hits. So the jury will be deliberating on him all October.

"Ultimately," said catcher Jason Varitek, "I think it will come down to our pitching, and doing what we can defensively to help our pitching -- because we can score runs."

Oh, they can do that, all right. They scored 910 of them -- the most in the big leagues, nearly 200 more than the White Sox and at least 100 more than any teams in the whole sport except the Yankees and Rangers.

And there's no more feared middle of any order than the 3-4 nightmare of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez -- who Sunday joined only the firms of Ruth-and-Gehrig, Mantle-and-Maris, and A-Rod-and-Palmeiro as the only sets of 45-homer teammates in history.

"We probably take them for granted sometimes because they're in our uniform," manager Terry Francona said of Ortiz and Ramirez. "But when you have to face them every couple of innings, it can't be a good feeling. I know how we feel when Guerrero and Sheffield and Alex come up there. You kind of hold your breath a little bit."

But teams that depend on offense to whomp their way through October tend to hold their breath for a whole month. So the question that will hang over every Red Sox postseason game and every Red Sox postseason series is whether the team in the other dugout has a pitching staff that can keep them from putting up too many football scores.

Beyond all of this nuts-and-bolts junk, however, there's one more cosmic question that is even harder to answer:

Now that this team is no longer forced to go into every postseason hearing about Bill Buckner and Aaron "Bleeping" Boone and 86 years of other assorted horror tales, does that somehow change the rotation of the earth to make their job even a little easier?

Count Damon as one guy who thinks so.

"The fans are not as devastated by a tough loss or anything like that anymore," he said. "What we did last year was, we erased all the negativity in their lives, and everyone in Boston seems to be a lot more positive."

They've noticed how little they have to hear about Bucky Dent and Babe Ruth's piano and all those other ever-popular Tales From The Curse anymore. And by lifting all those burdens, they've had a season that felt more like Chapter 2 of Last Year than a Wait Till Next Year kind of season.

So they remain as loose and goofy and dangerous as any team out there. And more and more in recent years, hasn't it seemed as if the team having the most fun in October was also the team that won in October?

"I've seen things that have gone on here this year would never have happened in New York," said Yankees defectee David Wells. "Over there [in New York], they run a lot tighter ship. But you can do it both ways. That's a business. This is a party ship. But I've been on both sides, and I'm fine with both. This is a laid-back atmosphere, and it's worked for these guys."

And because it has worked, they have so much less to lose than they ever have. Which might well make them more dangerous than they ever have been.

"It's interesting," said their executive vice president for public affairs, Charles Steinberg. "The energy is still there. The support is still there. The motivation is still there. But that underlying fear of losing again isn't there. So you still want to win as much as ever. But you're not carrying that 86-year burden on your back. ...

"The ache from bearing that stress for so long has been resolved now. Now it's a fresh, crisp eagerness that wasn't there before -- but not the dread of that weight."

Weight or no weight, of course, this might not end happily. And it might not end with another trip on a parade float. And it might not end with 18 generations of New Englanders weeping their tears of joy.

But whatever, it will be a very different kind of postseason for the Red Sox -- a postseason like none that any living American has ever experienced. So maybe they don't even need to be the fabled Idiots anymore to repeat.

"The only nickname this team is looking for," said Bronson Arroyo on Sunday, "is 2005 World Series champions."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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