By Jimmy Golen
BOSTON — Daisuke Matsuzaka will be on the mound for the Red Sox when the AL championship series begins Friday night against the Tampa Bay Rays.
That doesn’t make him Boston’s ace.
Josh Beckett is still No. 1 in the Red Sox rotation — especially during the playoffs — even though he had the worst outing of the three Boston starters who faced the Los Angeles Angels in the first round. Beckett, coming off a strained side muscle, is scheduled to pitch Game 2 in the best-of-seven series against the Rays.
“Before Beckett’s last start, he was the best postseason pitcher maybe in the history of the game,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said Wednesday after announcing his rotation. “He had the audacity to be a little rusty after two weeks. We don’t need to run away from Beckett, we need to get him on a run.”
Francona chose Matsuzaka to start against the Rays in Game 1 not because of Beckett’s injury, and certainly not because the team lost any faith in a guy who won five straight postseason outings before Boston’s Game 3 loss to the Angels. Even with his off night versus L.A., Beckett is 6-2 with a 2.09 ERA in his postseason career.
Instead, Francona said, the Red Sox scheduled Beckett for the second game because it would give him, Matsuzaka and Game 3 starter Jon Lester essentially the same amount of rest. Tim Wakefield will start Game 4, with Matsuzaka, Beckett and Lester ready to pitch again in Games 5-7 if necessary.
“Nobody’s going to throw three,” Francona said. “So having those three twice is really what’s important, regardless of how it’s lined up.”
Matsuzaka was 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA this season, best among the Boston starters in both categories. But he also led the rotation with 94 walks, raising his pitch count and limiting him to 167 2-3 innings.
“We’re going to have to wait him out and see how he’s throwing,” Rays rookie Evan Longoria said. “It’s a little bit different when you’re playing in a playoff game. Walks are so important, and if he’s going to come out and do what he normally does, he usually walks a ton of guys and throws a lot of pitches early. If we can get him on the ropes early, we’ve really got to take advantage of that.”
In the NL, Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Dodgers begin their series Thursday night, with Cole Hamels facing Derek Lowe in Game 1. The Phillies haven’t made it to the World Series since losing to Toronto in 1993, and the Dodgers haven’t been there since their victory over Oakland in 1988.
The Red Sox have gone twice since 2004, sweeping the Series both times. But the Rays had never finished above .500 before this year, posting the worst record in the majors in ‘07.
All season long, the Rays were described as “surprising,” and some thought they would falter down the stretch. But with the AL East lead on the line in September, they rallied against Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon at Fenway Park one night and then took the series finale the next in 14 innings to turn back the Red Sox charge.
The Rays again took two of three from Boston a week later at home to cement their hold on the division lead, going on to win by two games and leave the Red Sox as the wild card. Tampa Bay then dispatched the Chicago White Sox 3-1 in the best-of-five first round.
And they no longer qualify as surprising.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise 162 games and a playoff series that they’re good,” Francona said. “I understand some of the story behind this. They haven’t had any success going into this year and all of a sudden they went from the bottom to the top. It’s a great story for baseball. It made our life a little bit more miserable this year.
“They have a real good thing going. Our job will be to derail that.”
Matsuzaka will face James Shields (14-8) in the opener, with Beckett (12-10) going against Scott Kazmir (12-8) on Saturday night. Lester (16-6) will face Matt Garza (11-9) back at Fenway Park in Game 3 and Wakefield (10-11) will pitch against Andy Sonnanstine (13-9) in the fourth game.
Beckett would have six days off before starting a second time in Game 6, if necessary. Boston catcher Jason Varitek isn’t worried about the 28-year-old right-hander being able to rebound from a rough start against the Angels, when he allowed four runs in five innings and got no decision.
“The strength in Josh’s pitching was there,” Varitek said. “He hadn’t been on the mound in a while and it just led to a little sharpness issue.”
Francona said the decision to go with Wakefield over midseason acquisition Paul Byrd in Game 4 allows the Red Sox to match their knuckleballer with Kevin Cash, his regular catcher during the season. Byrd also was more easily moved to the bullpen, the manager said after the team’s workout at Fenway on Wednesday.
The rest of the 25-man roster, which could change from the first round because of an injury to third baseman Mike Lowell and the need for an extra reliever, will be discussed after Thursday’s workout at Tampa Bay.
AP freelance writer Mark Didtler in St. Petersburg, Fla., contributed to this report.