Despite loss, reason for optimism

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The entire Boston Red Sox starting rotation for the 2011 season was in attendance Friday at Tropicana Field.
All nine pitchers who have started a game for the Red Sox this season were in the visitors' clubhouse. Even Daisuke Matsuzaka was in the house.

When Boston began the season, it had the possibility of having one of the best rotations in baseball. Injuries and adversity have derailed that a bit, but it appears things are beginning to straighten out for the Red Sox pitching staff.

Besides Boston's 9-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night, let's start with the good news as teams return from the All-Star break. At least the Sox now know that Josh Beckett will be able to make his next start Sunday, after he was removed from his previous outing with a hyperextended left knee and wasn't able to pitch in the All-Star Game.

Lefty Jon Lester, who is on the disabled list with a lat strain, threw on flat ground Friday and felt good, which means he'll extend his long toss Saturday in hopes of a return to the rotation when the club returns from its current road trip late next week.

Right-hander Clay Buchholz also remains on the DL with a back strain, and he too has been able to play catch the last two days.

Matsuzaka is lost for the season after Tommy John surgery on June 10, but he said his rehab is ahead of schedule and his range of motion is better than expected. He spent Friday afternoon working out.

Veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield tossed a side session then relaxed in the clubhouse, watching the Open Championship on television.

John Lackey has been inconsistent, but before the All-Star break he produced his best outing of the season, while snapping a personal three-game losing skid. He worked 6 2/3 scoreless innings against the Orioles at Fenway Park and allowed a season-low three hits with one walk and seven strikeouts. He's hoping to build off that when he gets the ball Saturday.

Alfredo Aceves, who has made four starts this season, has been solid out of the bullpen of late. Kyle Weiland, who made his major league debut last Sunday at Fenway, was also going about his business Friday.

And on the mound stood Andrew Miller, who entered his fifth start of the season with a 3-0 record and a 3.57 ERA. The left-hander has been solid for the Sox during his stint in Boston, but Friday wasn't his night.

He suffered his first loss of the season in his shortest outing. He worked only 2 2/3 innings and allowed seven runs on five hits with five walks and no strikeouts. He tossed 85 pitches, 51 for strikes. Miller also surrendered a grand slam to the Rays' Ben Zobrist in the bottom of the second inning that sealed the deal.

Miller said he felt his command was there, he just tried to nibble a little too much and wasn't as aggressive as he wanted to be against the Rays. When the pitch count is that high so early in a pitcher's outing, it's obvious something isn't going right.

After Miller walked Rays DH Johnny Damon with two outs in the bottom of the third inning, Red Sox manager Terry Francona came out of the dugout to get the ball.

"On the last one to Damon I was pretty worn out," Miller said. "I threw so many pitches in a short period of time that by then I kind of lost all rhythm. I got behind in counts and threw pitches up in the zone, and you can't be successful that way."

Miller just fell behind in the count more often than not and it had nothing to do with his mechanics, said pitching coach Curt Young.

"Oh, no. He's been throwing the ball good," Young said. "He's been solid. He was just not getting ahead and not a lot of early outs."

It was a first-pitch changeup that Zobrist hit for the grand slam in the second inning, and it's certainly a pitch Miller would want back, because his outing could have had a different outcome.

"It was over the plate," Miller explained. "He got on his front foot, but did a great job of getting it on the barrel and hit a big homer for them and took us out of the game. Obviously, I would like to have that one back and throw something else, or throw a better one, but I can't do that."

Miller says he's not feeling the pressure with this opportunity and that he enjoys helping the club while a few of the regular starters remain on the DL.

"I'm treating it like I would any other start," he said. "I try to prepare the same way and compete just like I would in any situation."

Francona called it a work in progress with Miller.

"Andrew feels the same way," the manager said. "Trying to get some consistency with that delivery, and there's going to be moving parts because he's tall and lanky. You don't want to do too much when a guy's competing, but we think he still has things to work on."

Despite a 3-0 record coming into this start, Miller said he understands there are things he needs to work on, and the last thing he wanted was an outing like Friday's.

"You don't like to have one like this," he said. "I've got to make some adjustments and do some stuff better, and I'll work on that between outings."

In order for the Red Sox to continue to hold their ground in the AL East, they need their normal rotation healthy and productive the rest of the way. Lester and Buchholz need to get healthy. Lackey needs to be more consistent in the second half, and Beckett needs to continue what he's done this season.

"It's very important," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "It's nice to have our full lineup out there. You can't replace those guys. Andrew Miller has done a great job, and all the guys who have jumped in for the guys who have been hurt, but you can't replace Lester and Buchholz, and that's why they're there.

"It's nothing against the other guys. Miller has done a great job and had been 3-0 for us, and one pitch tonight and it's a different ballgame."

There were nine in the clubhouse, but the Red Sox will need their five best starters back and ready to go the rest of the way.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.