Rotation key to getting Red Sox back on track
NEW YORK -- For the Boston Red Sox, this was even better than winning the season's first two games in Yankee Stadium, and earning a genuinely warm feeling on a cold, cold night in the Bronx.
The way in which the Red Sox defeated the Yankees twice to begin the 2013 season was deeply, sincerely, wholeheartedly, encouraging. On both occasions, the Red Sox received a fine performance from their starting pitcher; on Monday afternoon from Jon Lester, on Wednesday night, from Clay Buchholz.
There can be as much talk as possible about new players, a new manager, better chemistry and more character in the clubhouse. That's all fine. But the one thing that absolutely had to change was the work of the starting rotation, which had led to the last-place performance of 2012.
The Red Sox have starting pitchers who have proven their capabilities as successful Major Leaguers. This season, it is a matter of getting those pitchers back to their best form. This is one of those activities that can generally be placed in the easier-said-than-done category.
But from an organizational perspective, the Red Sox have done the right thing. As manager they have brought John Farrell back from Toronto. Farrell had a highly successful run in Boston as a pitching coach and already knows these pitchers. As pitching coach, the Red Sox have hired Juan Nieves, an intelligent, diligent, competitive individual.
Lester, the Opening Day pitcher, won 65 games over the previous four seasons, but in 2012 had a 9-14 record with a 4.82 ERA. On Monday, Lester was solid in the opener, giving up two runs over five innings, while striking out seven, gaining the decision in an 8-2 Boston victory.
Buchholz, who was 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA in 2010, was 11-8, 4.56 last season. He had a 7.20 ERA in the first two months of 2012. His 7.71 ERA in five career starts against the Yankees wasn't particularly encouraging, either.
But the performance of Buchholz on Wednesday night, in a 7-4 defeat of the Yankees, was even more encouraging. Buchholz gave up only one run over seven innings, and needed only 94 pitches to get that far, throwing strikes with all of his pitches.
"He was extremely efficient with all his of pitches, and [produced] a quality seven innings of work for us tonight," Farrell said. "On a cold night, with some long innings, he threw some in the [indoor batting] cage between innings, just to keep himself loose. Under the conditions, under the circumstances, he did an outstanding job to continue to put up zeros.
"I think he continued tonight what he'd been doing all Spring Training. He threw some good two-seamers in to lefties to finish them off. I thought he had four pitches for strikes, particularly his changeup against right-handed hitters. Again, I think the biggest thing was just the overall efficiency."
These were not ideal conditions for pitching. The game-time temperature was 43, but the temperature dipped into the 30s well before the game ended, and the wind chill dropped into the 20s.
"It was cold, man," Buchholz said. "That was probably the coldest I've ever been while I was pitching."
And Buchholz is a native of Texas. It's not as though he was raised to pitch in sub-freezing temperatures. But while the temperature dropped, he rose to this occasion.
"It's definitely different out there, it's challenging to throw in conditions like this," Buchholz said. "If it's cold, that's fine, but when it's windy and cold, that's when it gets you. The ball sort of gets that ashy feeling to it and it feels like you're throwing with a cue ball. You've got to find ways to keep your hand semi-warm, and if there's any kind of moisture you can get on it, just to get a grip on it, that's what you've got to go through."
On the opposition side of it, no, the Yankees' lineup is not currently at anything like full strength. But these are still the Yankees, this is still Yankee Stadium. There are still guys wearing pinstripes on the other side and this is still a tough place to pitch.
So give full credit to Lester and Buchholz for starting the season with performances that fully deserved victory.
The rest of the rotation will get its turn, starting with Ryan Dempster, new to this club but known elsewhere to be a consummate professional. He will face the Yankees on Thursday night in the finale of this series.
Then there is John Lackey, who had a commendable career with the Angels before being signed by Boston. He was not a big success in 2010, was hit hard in 2011, and then underwent Tommy John surgery and missed 2012. He is healthy now and fit. The Red Sox need a genuine comeback season from him.
Felix Doubront has tremendous potential and he demonstrated some of it last season. All in all, this rotation has the potential to be transformed from the problem it was last season into the solution it could be in 2013.
That is why as uplifting as a 2-0 start against the Yankees is, the performances of Lester and Buchholz led the way in providing real encouragement for the Red Sox.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.