When the Red Sox suffered their epic collapse in 2011, starting pitching was to blame. Boston starters were 4-13 and had a 7.08 earned run average that month.
In 27 games, the starting pitcher failed to go five innings 11 times. What started out as a few bumps turned into an avalanche of losses as the rotation’s lack of depth and talent was exposed in the heat of the pennant race.
Tim Wakefield, who retired five months later, started four times. Overmatched rookie Kyle Weiland got three starts. He has pitched three games in the majors in the two seasons since.
Andrew Miller got two starts before being returned to the bullpen. John Lackey made five starts with an ulnar collateral ligament that was in tatters and required surgery.
Two seasons later, it’s evident the Red Sox have learned from their mistakes. With 30 games remaining this season, the rotation could be what propels the team into the postseason for the first time since 2009.
“To me, that’s the difference with this team, our pitching,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “We’re sending somebody out there every day who is pretty darned good. That takes the pressure off everybody else.”
Red Sox starters have a 3.82 ERA, second in the American League to the Tigers. In Jon Lester (12-7, 3.97), Lackey (8-11, 3.17), Felix Doubront (9-6, 3.79), and Jake Peavy (10-5, 3.99), the Sox have four reliable starters who have pitched well in recent weeks.
Doubront starts Tuesday night as the Red Sox open a nine-game homestand against the third-place Orioles.
“To me, that’s our most important area of this team going forward,’’ manager John Farrell said. “That’s not to slight any other side of it. We know we need to score runs. But that starting rotation is key for us going forward.”
The one slumping starter, Ryan Dempster (6-9, 4.77), will next pitch Friday on 12 days of rest and expects to be sharper.
All-Star righthander Clay Buchholz, out since June 9 with a shoulder injury, started a minor league injury rehabilitation assignment Sunday and could be back in the majors inside of two weeks.
In 2011, manager Terry Francona was desperate for starters. Now Farrell could have the luxury of picking from six of them. That depth has helped manage the workload of the starters all season.
“There’s a reason we don’t skip guys coming through the off days. We try and space out and build in as much rest as possible. It’s also a testament to their work ethic, making sure their work routine between starts is a priority and they’ve done that very well,” Farrell said.
The Red Sox had a 1½-game lead in the division when Buchholz made his last start June 8. Eleven weeks later, their lead remains exactly the same.
Rookie Brandon Workman made three starts to help fill in for Buchholz, with Alfredo Aceves and Steven Wright also filling in. The Sox then obtained Peavy from the White Sox July 30.
General manager Ben Cherington said at the time that adding a starting pitcher was the most important thing he could do for the team.
Peavy is 2-1 with a 3.31 ERA in five starts for the Sox. On Sunday, he threw a complete game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in an 8-1 win.
Behind Lester and Peavy, the Sox took two of three games from Los Angeles, cooling down the hottest team in baseball. Having Peavy for the game on Sunday night was important.
“Exactly what Ben had envisioned. There was a need to put him in the rotation, that veteran presence. It gives us the ability to put Workman in the bullpen,” Farrell said. “Even if Clay was back with us right now, Jake’s outings have been very consistent.”
Beyond what he brings to the mound, Peavy’s personality has been good fit with the Sox.
“He doesn’t take any pitch for granted,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “That’s the reason he went out there [Sunday] and threw a complete game. He’s a gamer and he’s been a big lift for this team.”
Said Peavy: “I love it here. To be in first place going into the final stretch of the season, that’s what you want. We feel like it’s right there for us.”
From a pitching standpoint, the schedule breaks well for the Sox. They have played three more games than the Orioles and second-place Rays. The extra days off will allow Farrell to set up the rotation to take advantage of particular matchups.
Of the 30 games left, 18 are at home.
Lester, who has allowed only four earned runs over 29 innings in his last four starts, likes where the Sox stand.
“We got through a tough part of the schedule. The rest of it isn’t going to be easy, but we’re in first place and playing well,” he said. “That’s where you want to be.”