BOSTON — Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz were a combined 12-0 and the Red Sox had won 14 of the two pitchers’ 17 starts combined as of May 15.
Since then Lester has a 7.20 ERA over six starts. Buchholz has made just three starts over the past 28 days and counting, suffering from irritation of the AC joint and now neck strain, which landed him on the disabled list yesterday.
And thus, while Lester and Buchholz led the Red Sox into first place in the AL East, it’s clear the back end of the rotation and Boston’s minor league depth starters must carry this team right now and keep them on top.
Another thing that’s surprisingly clear: GM Ben Cherington made the right call when he did not release Alfredo Aceves after the righty’s April 23 meltdown against Oakland but instead sent him to Triple-A Pawtucket.
Since Aceves’ demotion, he has made three spot starts for Boston, including one here yesterday. He has hurled 17.0 innings combined and allowed just three runs (one run in each outing).
Aceves hurled 5 strong innings yesterday. His start was cut short due to a rain delay or else he would have pitched into the sixth inning. Still, he earned the win in Game 1 of the Rays and Red Sox’ day/night doubleheader here at Fenway. Boston posted a 5-1 victory.
“He was around the plate often, got some early outs, was overall efficient,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said.
Lefty Felix Doubront dazzled in Game 2. He hurled a career-high 8 innings, allowing no runs, three hits and no walks while striking out six. The Red Sox won 3-1 on a Jonny Gomes’ two-run walkoff homer in the ninth.
“Felix more than did his work,” Farrell said. “An outstanding effort on his part.”
This reporter wrote a column earlier this year urging Cherington to release Aceves because of the right-hander’s erratic behavior. But Aceves has been a faithful solider since late April, going back and forth from Pawtucket without complaining. And he’s pitched well when given opportunities.
He walked three in the second inning yesterday but got Yunel Escobar to ground into a double with the bases loaded to end the frame. That was key moment in Game 1. Aceves then allowed just two base runners over the next three innings.
OK, so not everything was exactly perfect yesterday. Aceves almost missed the start, getting stuck in traffic.
“He’s not a guy that reports to the clubhouse early to begin with ... but had ample time to get loose inside, go out, throw his 25 pitches of warm-up,” Farrell said.
TOP TWO TROUBLE
There definitely should be alarm over Lester and Buchholz.
Eleven of the 12 runs Lester has surrendered in his past two starts have been scored with two outs.
The opposition is batting .295 with a 364 on-base percentage against him with two outs compared to .220/.289 with no outs and .237/.310 with one out. Ironically, Lester was at his best with two outs last year.
The southpaw seems to be letting umpires get into his head too much. He starts complaining balls and strikes and then self-destructs by failing to go right after hitters and instead nibbling on the corners of the plate.
Buchholz, meanwhile, is 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA. Can’t complain about that, right? But on May 26, the right-hander was on pace to pitch 243.2 innings. He’s now on pace for throw just 192.1 innings.
REST OF ROTATION
With Lester’s struggling and Buchholz on the DL, the others need to bring their “A” games.
John Lackey (3.08 ERA in 11 starts) definitely has done job and Ryan Dempster — known for being an innings eater — has pitched at least 7 innings in three of his past four starts. That trend must continue.
Doubront had been a bit of an issue until making the best start of his career here yesterday.
His effort last night marked just the 11th time that Doubront has pitched more than 6 innings in 44 big league starts.
“He didn’t have that stretch of hitters where he lost the strike zone or where he issued a couple of base on balls,” Farrell said. “He attacked the zone all night. Fastball command. I thought he threw a number of cutters tonight to keep the right-handers honest.”
What Dourbront did yesterday is what he is capable of doing the majority of the time. His stuff is that good. But like Lester, it is important for him to attack hitters.
Beyond the back of the rotation, minor leaguers Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa also need to step up, when they are called on.
The 23-year-old Webster likely will pitch Saturday. He had some recent control issues in Pawtucket. But he allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out six batters over 6.0 scoreless innings in his last outing and his PawSox ERA stands at 2.98.