Lack-Lester pitching doesn't cut it

BOSTON -- If pitching wins championships, the Boston Red Sox have a long way to go in 2012.

As the All-Star break arrived early Monday morning after the New York Yankees took three of four games against the Sox, it's evident that Boston's starting pitching needs to improve in the second half or there won't be a postseason in Boston for a third straight year.

The idea of an ace pitcher on this staff is almost nonexistent.

It's definitely not Jon Lester or Josh Beckett. The top two pitchers in Boston's rotation are a combined 9-13 in a total of 32 starts this season, and the Sox are just 12-20 overall in those games.

Manager Bobby Valentine knows that's not going to be enough if the Sox hope to make the playoffs.

"No. No. Duplicating that? No. I don't think it will be duplicated," the manager said.

Lester dropped to 5-6 with a 4.49 ERA on Sunday when he suffered a 7-3 loss to the Yankees after he allowed five runs (four earned) on nine hits with two walks and six strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings of work. The left-hander tossed a total of 101 pitches (56 strikes) in the outing.

"He's at 100 pitches and we're not even through the fifth inning yet," Valentine said. "I know it's not what he wanted, for sure. It's not what we needed."

Lester was clearly frustrated.

"Obviously not good," he said. "I've got to get deeper into games somehow than I did -- too many pitches, too many foul balls and too many deep counts. I kept giving them an opportunity to get back into counts and with a good team like that, you can't do that."

It wasn't just Sunday's performance against the AL East leaders that infuriated Lester. He's bothered by his first half entirely. The Red Sox desperately need him to improve. They need both Lester and Beckett to have a complete metamorphosis in the second half.

"It's important," Lester said. "It was a horse s--- first half and I can only speak for myself. It's uncharted waters for me and I've got to keep on grinding it out and can't give up. I've got to keep working and that's all I can control, showing up every day and working hard, and things will turn around."

Due to the break and the way Valentine has set up the rotation, Lester won't pitch again until July 16 when the Red Sox host the Chicago White Sox at Fenway Park.

"It'll be a good mental break to get away from it for a while," Lester said. "For a couple of days you can get out of the monotony of the same routine I do every day, so it'll be good to relax and not worry about bullpens or anything like that. It'll be good to get away."

Here's the order of the rotation after the break: Franklin Morales, Clay Buchholz, Beckett, Aaron Cook, Lester and Felix Doubront. Valentine admitted that six-man rotation will last only one time through.

Buchholz, who is 8-2 with a 5.53 ERA, is scheduled to return on Saturday, in the second game of the Tampa Bay series in St. Petersburg, Fla. Despite not pitching for the Red Sox since June 19 due to a bout of gastrointestinal bleeding that required a five-day hospital stay, the right-hander said he's back to feeling normal after a brief, 43-pitch minor league rehab start at Triple-A Pawtucket on Sunday.

The top three pitchers in the Red Sox rotation know what needs to happen.

"We haven't actually all sat down and talked about it, but it's understood," Buchholz said. "We know that if we go out there and do our job, [Doubront] has done an awesome job already. Then Franklin, if they stick with him, I think they can feed off of us, too. They may want to go out there and one-up us. It all intertwines together. When our offense and pitching gets going at the same time I think we are one of the best teams in baseball. We just need to find that niche. Instead of doing it four or five games at a time, we need to do it for 15 games at a time. That's where we need to be."

Pitching has been an issue for the majority of the season. Health has also been a concern.

Daisuke Matsuzaka returned to the rotation last month, less than a year after having Tommy John surgery on June 10, 2011. The right-hander was 0-3 with a 6.65 ERA in five starts before he was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder strain on July 3.

Morales was pulled from the bullpen and converted into a starter. He has worked a total of five games (four starts a one relief appearance) with a 1-2 record and a 3.50 ERA.

Doubront is 9-4 with a 4.41 ERA in 17 starts and has been the most consistent pitcher in the rotation. Cook began the year at Triple-A, then made one start for Boston in May but suffered a knee laceration and was placed on the DL. He was activated on June 24 and is 2-2 overall with a 4.37 ERA in four starts.

Then there are the what-ifs.

The Daniel Bard-as-starter experiment came to an end after he posted a 5-6 record with a 5.24 ERA in 10 starts and one relief appearance, and he was optioned to the minors. If he had remained in the bullpen as the dominant reliever he had been for the previous 2½ seasons, if Andrew Bailey had been healthy, if Mark Melancon hadn't suffered an early-season meltdown, then maybe closer Alfredo Aceves would have been in the rotation.

If that were the case, then maybe this club wouldn't have spent the majority of this season in the AL East basement.

The Red Sox need help in the rotation. Perhaps these guys can pick it up in the second half with more consistent outings. Perhaps GM Ben Cherington will swing a deal to acquire another arm to shake things up.

Would it be so far out of the realm of possibility for Cherington to dial up the Seattle Mariners and ask what it would take to acquire Felix Hernandez? The Red Sox would have to surrender some serious talent in exchange for the King's services.

The Sox have had enough of change, however, and they're looking for consistency. The players in the clubhouse are confident Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, Doubront, Morales/Cook/Justin Germano will get it done in the second half.

"I'm really confident," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "We've got a healthy JB, a healthy Buch, a healthy Lester and I would go to battle with those guys any day of the week. And these four days are going to help those guys rest a little more and we'll hit it hard next half."