Red Sox throwing big three at Yankees

The Red Sox are under no delusion that their starters are quite this good: a 2.84 ERA in the last nine games; a .210 opponents batting average against for the season; a string of nine straight games with three runs or fewer allowed.

As the long season progresses, there will be hiccups and injuries. Two of their five starters, after all, are in their 40s. Josh Beckett has had just one season (last year) in which he pitched more than 180 innings and Daisuke Matsuzaka must still prove that he can adapt to the rigors of a five-man rotation.

But as the Red Sox get ready for their first meeting with the New York Yankees this weekend, consider this: The last time the two teams met in a meaningful series -- the infamous five-game sweep in August 2006 at Fenway -- the Red Sox started Jason Johnson in Game 1.

In stark contrast, the Red Sox have Curt Schilling (Friday), Beckett (Saturday) and Matsuzaka (Sunday) lined up for this weekend, reflecting the upgrade they've made in the rotation and the return to health of some veterans.

Even when the Red Sox believed they had a big three of Schilling, Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon (since returned to his rightful spot in the bullpen) set last winter, that didn't deter them from blowing everybody else out of the water in the bidding for Matsuzaka.

The Sox saw Matsuzaka as a potential front-of-the-rotation starter at 26, and it didn't hurt that half the price of his acquisition didn't count toward the luxury tax. The Red Sox believed that Matsuzaka was the single best pitcher available on the market and were thrilled to get him with a base salary roughly 40 percent of what the San Francisco Giants committed to Barry Zito, two years Matsuzaka's senior.

Even as they contend, the Red Sox's rotation is in transition. There's a gaping 14-year gap between their second-oldest starting pitcher (Schilling) and the next in line chronologically (Beckett).

Matsuzaka has been, if possible, better than anticipated. His 1-2 record couldn't be more misleading. In his first loss, he was outshone by Felix Hernandez while allowing three runs in seven innings. In Tuesday's loss to Toronto, a momentary lapse of control -- three walks in one inning, aided and abetted by an infield chopper and a double-play ball that wasn't -- resulted in a 2-1 loss.

"That's two games now where we've scored Daisuke a total of one run," said third baseman Mike Lowell. "If he keeps pitching like that, he's going to win a lot of games for us."

If Matsuzaka is the international phenom, then Beckett is the developing ace, just under the radar.

A World Series MVP at 23, Beckett was maddeningly inconsistent last season, his first in the American League. He led the staff with 16 wins, but his 5.01 ERA reflected how spotty he could be.

By his own admission, Beckett relied too much on his power and not enough on his secondary pitches last season. Stubbornly sticking to his fastball, Beckett too often challenged and lost.
This year, he's put more faith in catcher Jason Varitek and utilized his breaking pitches more frequently, to great effect. Through three starts, Beckett is 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA. It's helped that Beckett has taken the advice of pitching coach John Farrell and shifted his position on the rubber. Now, his breaking pitches don't tail out of the strike zone nearly as much.

Bookending the two potential aces-in-waiting is Schilling, who had his appeal for a contract extension rejected by Red Sox management in spring training. A poor outing on Opening Day -- five runs on eight hits over four innings and just a handful of swing-and-misses -- had people wondering whether his poor second half last year (5-4, 4.58) was the beginning of the end.

But even at 40, Schilling is still evolving. He worked diligently on a changeup this spring and has added it to his repertoire. No longer the prototypical power pitcher, Schilling is striving for efficiency first.

"I plan to pitch to contact this year," Schilling said, "which is something I've never done. I've always looked for the swing-and-miss. [But] with my command, I should be able to be more economical and pitch more innings."

His fellow senior, Tim Wakefield, has rebounded from a rib cage stress fracture that hampered him most of last season and shows no signs of slowing down. The knuckleballer is 2-1 with a 1.35 ERA in three starts, holding opponents to a .167 average.

Waiting in the wings is Jon Lester, declared cancer-free after a battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in the fall. Lester will have made four starts at Single-A Greenville and is likely to make one more for Triple-A Pawtucket before bumping journeyman Julian Tavarez back to the bullpen.

When that happens, the generation gap will widen from 23 (Lester) to 41 (Wakefield, come August).

If the Sox had hit more in the first three weeks -- they've been shut out twice and limited to one run in two others -- their 9-5 record would be better. But the Red Sox are hardly concerned.

"With all the cold weather and rainouts," Terry Francona said, "the lineup hasn't gotten into a rhythm. But we're very pleased with the way we've pitched."

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.