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Diverging from the Gospel of an Ace as Skid Buster

For as long as I can remember, I have professed the baseball wisdom that a clear Ace of a starting pitching staff was an absolute necessity for any team with any hope of the playoffs.  This, at least in part, is because an Ace can be relied upon to break losing streaks.

The logic goes something like this: every team will get swept, lose 2, 3, 4 games in a row at some point during a 162 game season.  How do you stop that from becoming 10 in a row, or losing 16 of 20 and falling out of contention?  You have Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddox, even a James Sheilds or C.C. Sabathia.  You have a single pitcher who will win most of the games he starts and will almost always position you to win even if he's not at his best. Wes Gardiner may lose a game after Bruce Hurst, Oil Can Boyd and Mike Boddicker had also faltered, but the Rocket is 25 years old, has an ERA under 3.00, averages 7.5 innings per start, strikes out over 10 a game, and is absolutely expected to win every time out there, even on a mediocre team like the 1988 Sox.  In fact, he's considered MORE likely to win BECAUSE his teammates didn't.  That, my friends, is an ace.  Even on a team like those '88 Sox who have someone like Hurst who had a better record than the Rocket.  An Ace isn't about stats, he's about carrying a team and about leading a team out of trouble.

Flash forward to the 2013 Red Sox squad.  They are in first place.  They have not lost more than 3 in a row at any time this season.  There have probably been 3 or 4 "here we go" moments this season during which we might all have felt the Sox were about to tailspin, they were about to give up first to the inexplicably good Rays or the Showalter-infused Orioles or the...  the them.  But it hasn't happened.  (Don't worry, I'm typing with one hand while the other knocks on wood throughout this missive)

Meanwhile, Clay Buchholz was an ace for a month or so before breaking.  Jon Lester hasn't been consistent.  Jake Peavy is an experienced ace but he's getting older, breaks down rather frequently, and hasn't been here long enough to get this credit.  The fact is that the Sox have found a way to get Ace-like results from an Ace-less starting rotation.

Now, why is this you ask?  Well, 'why is that' is exactly what I'm asking.  What, you thought I'd provide an answer after you read all that?  Sorry.

Then again, I guess I'll try.  Here are a few theories:
  • The Manager: While Francona (who I will always love) might have been laisez faire to a fault and Bobby V. was a fireman who fought fires with gasoline, John Farrell seems calm, confident and authoritative.  He does talk to the media and is pretty open about stuff, but he doesn't fan flames like Bobby V. did.  He also gets rid of problems like Alfredo Aceves even when talent-wise he might be needed.  Kudos also to pitching coach Juan Nieves for whatever magic potion he's using to keep this collection together.
  • Veterans: The Sox brought in, and continue to bring in, solid veteran clubhouse guys who both have the skill to play at this level and are comfortable with bench roles if that's what the manager wants.  Johnny Gomes is the king of this.  He roots hard for everyone and clearly loves the game.  He wants to play and does pretty well when he does, but he doesn't gripe about losing his job to Nava in the first half or getting hit for by Carp at times.  David Ross, Mike Carp (though young), Nava and others have all adjusted well to changing roles.  John McDonald who was just added from Philly might not hit at all but he'll field and he'll be a great addition to this group.
  • Catcher:  A nice piece in the ProJo outlines what has to be increasingly clear to most fans: that Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been a key, consistent part of the pitching staff this year.  With Ross injured much of the year - but available as a pseudo-coach - and Lavarnway not seeming to have the confidence of the coaching staff, Salty has played a ton.  He's been a better hitter this year than ever before (much higher average and his frequent doubles have made up for the drop in homers).  But while we often focus on throwing out baserunners, it's the leadership and consistency that a good catcher brings that we should probably most value.  Think about Tek toward the end when he couldn't hit and couldn't throw.  We still sort of wanted him out there.  Salty is sort of like that, but with the hitting still intact.  Meanwhile, Ross and Tek are around the organization helping out.
  • Luck: After some of the bigger "here we go" moments, the Sox played the Mariners, Rockies and Twins respectively.  Get healthy time.... Felix Doubront turned it around right about the same time that Buchholz's body fell apart...  Two closers fell apart and the likely third choice (Tazawa) didn't seem to fit, but Uehara has become one of the best closers in the game.
Somehow, this team finds a way to stop the death spirals.  They might just be that good of a team.  They might just have that magic which not only wins games late but prevents domino losses.  Whatever it is, let's hope it keeps going.  My knuckle is getting sore and there's a worn spot on my table.

Bullpen Session: Speaking of the 1988 Red Sox, closer Lee Smith should be in the Hall of Fame.  Modern overuse of the one inning save as the only way to end a close game has created an odd world where only Mo Rivera is a Hall of Fame closer and older, long closers like Eck, Goose and Rollie Fingers are closers.  But there's no room for anyone in between.  Maybe it's because Francisco Cordero is 13th on the all time list.  Hall of Fame should go to the best players at their job during their era for an extended period of time.  At closer, that should include Lee Smith, probably Jeff Reardon, and maybe John Franco, Randy Myers, and Trevor Hoffman.  You can't have a position, especially one as important as the closer, only be represented by the one best player there. 


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