Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, the best position player in the American League last year, likely will miss at least six weeks after suffering a subluxation of his right shoulder.
Giants closer Brian Wilson, the top closer in baseball two years ago, appears headed for season-ending elbow surgery.
This may surprise you, but neither star’s injury is as catastrophic to his team as it may seem. No need to cancel the rest of the schedule. October remains a makeable putt for both clubs.
Consider the most recent evidence: Boston lost Ellsbury in Friday’s home opener but beat the Rays that day . . . and the next day . . . and the day after that. Wilson threw what was probably his last pitch of the season Thursday in Colorado, but the Giants responded with a weekend series victory over the Pirates.
Of course, both of them — particularly the Red Sox — must shuffle their personnel and develop new ways to win. Frankly, the most important task ahead of the Red Sox is finding a way to coexist. Even as they rode a three-game winning streak, the big story Monday morning was manager Bobby Valentine’s apology to veteran Kevin Youkilis after questioning his commitment in a televised interview. “I don’t know what Bobby’s trying to do,” Dustin Pedroia told reporters in support of his teammate. “But that’s not how we go about our stuff here. Maybe that stuff works in Japan.” [The latter was a reference to Valentine’s tenure as a manager in Japan.]
The remedy for San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy is pretty straightforward. His team had the second-lowest bullpen ERA in the National League in 2011, and most of last year’s relievers are back. In Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo and left-hander Javier Lopez, Bochy has three veterans who should be able to handle the job on a rotating basis; none has surrendered an earned run this season, and Lopez was the winning pitcher in Saturday’s walk-off victory.
Wilson’s injury illustrates why Giants officials decided over the offseason to keep their bullpen depth rather than trade it for offense. As Casilla, Romo and Lopez are pushed later into the game, the onus will fall on the San Francisco starters to extend themselves by an out or two. Remarkably, Barry Zito already has done that. He entered Sunday with the National League lead in innings pitched (16), with teammate Matt Cain close behind.
If only Tim Lincecum could be more like Zito. (I’ll bet you didn’t expect to read that sentence in 2012.) Lincecum is coming off the shortest outing of his career, in which the number of outs recorded (seven) was disturbingly close to the earned runs allowed (six).
Lincecum’s next start is Monday against the Phillies, which is not nearly as daunting as it sounds. Philadelphia is averaging barely more than three runs per game. The Phillies have combined to hit five home runs, tied for second fewest in the majors. They were better when Matt Stairs was around. (And Jayson Werth. And Ryan Howard. And Chase Utley.)
Bochy, who is particularly adept at handling bullpens, should be able to stitch together a credible late-inning crew from his available options. But even the best managers are helpless when the performance of a two-time Cy Young Award winner turns south. So if Lincecum struggles again Monday, it might be time for the Giants to fret. Otherwise, they should be OK. After all, they are scoring 4.8 runs per game. To the fans at AT&T Park, the ’12 Giants look like the ’27 Yankees.
Run-scoring isn’t an issue for the Red Sox. But when has it ever been? They lead the American League in runs scored, just like they led the majors last year, just like they finished second only to the Yankees in 2010 despite an injury epidemic that swallowed the seasons of Ellsbury, Youkilis and Pedroia.
Make no mistake: Ellsbury will be eminently difficult to replace. He effectively holds two jobs — leadoff hitter and center fielder — so Valentine will need to arrange a committee to account for his absence. Shortstop Mike Aviles, off to a strong start, is a suitable choice to bat leadoff.
For now, Red Sox fans must accept that Darnell McDonald, Jason Repko and Cody Ross may be their starting outfield against left-handed pitching, as was the case Sunday. One would expect more star power from a team carrying a player payroll of roughly $175 million. And yet the most pressing question after the Ellsbury injury is identical to the most pressing question before the Ellsbury injury: Do the Red Sox have enough pitching?
For a change, the news there isn’t all bad. The Red Sox allowed five runs or fewer in each of their past four games, which is downright Pedro-esque in the context of what happened last September. Josh Beckett responded to a horrendous first start with an eight-inning, one-run statement in Friday’s win. Jon Lester has been steady. Felix Doubront is living up to the job description of a No. 5 starter, twice pitching well enough to enable a Red Sox victory.
Daniel Bard, who had an semi-encouraging start Monday (seven strikeouts, seven walks), is in many ways an organizational bellwether. Team officials decided to move him from a setup role, where he thrived, to the rotation, where he is unproven. Unless he can string together some quality starts over the next several weeks, fans will rightly demand that Bard return to the bullpen — particularly in light of the recent injury to closer Andrew Bailey.
That’s the funny thing about Ellsbury’s injury: How well the Red Sox play without him has much more to do with the veteran pitchers than the new center fielder.