4/2/2013 3:37 P.M. ET
Starters the alpha, omega to Red Sox's fortunes
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- Beyond the memorable Major League debut of Jackie Bradley Jr. and the overall inspired effort by the Red Sox in their Opening Day victory against the Yankees on Monday was a subtlety that needs to become a trend.
Jon Lester, the ace of the staff, turned in a strong pitching performance, albeit a little shorter (five innings) than he would have liked.
For all the talk about the improvement of clubhouse chemistry and the influx of a prospect as exciting as Bradley, the importance of starting pitching has been underplayed when it comes to the 2013 Red Sox.
In fact, the sharp decline of the rotation last year was equally underrated, because former manager Bobby Valentine was painted as the face of most of went wrong during a 69-93 disaster.
To regain their once-regular spot as one of baseball's best teams, the Red Sox need to start pitching again. And it begins with the starters.
Last season, Sox starters went 48-72 with a 5.19 ERA. You'd have to go back to 1997 (50-53, 4.95 ERA) to find a Boston starting staff that was even close to that bad. Check any starting-pitching stat last season and the Red Sox were near the bottom of the league.
They were 27th in the Majors in runs allowed -- 4.98 per game. They were also 27th in quality starts.
The ingredient for the sharp demise is the same one that can lift the Sox back up again.
"It hasn't been a sit-down conversation, but you can almost tell that it's on everybody's mind," said Clay Buchholz, who draws the assignment against Hiroki Kuroda in Game 2 on Wednesday night against the Yanks. "You feel so much better when you win your first three or four games, win your first couple series, rather than losing them and having to press."
After Lester turned in a strong performance on Opening Day last year, former Red Sox right-hander Josh Beckett and Buchholz got shelled the next two games. Boston got off to a 1-5 start and didn't contend the entire season. Even Lester slipped badly, going 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA.
This season's rotation can be a lot better for a variety of reasons. Lester seems bound and determined to make a dramatic rebound this season.
Buchholz got off to a horrific start last year, but he was consistently strong in the second half. And with no more concerns about his back, he should be in position to come out of the gate with some quality performances this season.
"Like Jon Lester and our other starters, he had a very strong and consistent Spring Training," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "The one thing that was evident early on was that he came in without any physical issues to hold him back. I thought he was better overall with particularly his fastball location, bottom of the strike zone, and if that holds true to form going forward, he should be a very good and certainly a very strong starting pitcher for us. What that means in innings, wins, losses, time will tell. But he's in a good place right now to start the season."
The Red Sox have added a durable innings-eater to the third spot in the rotation in Ryan Dempster, who exudes professionalism.
Felix Doubront is one of the three holdovers from last year's rotation, and he could well take a step forward in his second year as a Major League starter. Farrell said recently that Doubront's stuff is as good as anyone on the entire pitching staff. In other words, if Doubront can learn to harness it all in the right way, he could take a significant leap.
Then there is John Lackey. The veteran righty had a decent first season in Boston (14-11, 4.40 ERA) and a rough second year (12-12, 6.41 ERA). However, nobody will ever know how much Lackey's elbow weakness/soreness contributed to the way he pitched those first two years with the Sox.
Eighteen months removed from Tommy John surgery, Lackey makes his return and feels better than he has in years.
Aside from the pitchers who make up the rotation, another factor that could spur a turnaround is the leaders.
It's no coincidence that Farrell was Boston's top choice to manage the club. During his time as pitching coach, Lester and Buchholz pitched the best baseball of their careers.
And Juan Nieves, who is the Red Sox's fourth pitching coach since Farrell vacated that post, seems to have the right touch.
"Absolutely," Buchholz said. "Obviously [Farrell and Nieves] are both baseball guys who know the game. I think the best part about them both is, if you have a problem with something, you can walk right up to them and talk to them. You may not like what they have to tell you back, but it's going to be the truth."
And by now, everyone knows what the truth is. The Red Sox will go as far as their pitching takes them this season.