In Red Sox circus, one big problem comes right at the start

Franklin Morales and the Red Sox starters have a terrible 6.65 ERA in the first inning. (US Presswire)

NEW YORK -- The problems between the players and the manager are very real. The other issues that have turned this Red Sox season into something of a sad circus exist, to the point where almost anyone who spends time around this team has learned to roll his eyes regularly.

But there's something else that has gone badly wrong, something that doesn't get mentioned often enough.

The starting rotation has been awful.

Not just bad. Awful -- to the point where it's hard to believe that the team's record isn't even worse.

"We've played, I think, an abnormal number of games where we've been behind early," manager Bobby Valentine said Friday afternoon.

Sure enough, a few hours later, Red Sox starter Franklin Morales allowed a first-inning home run to the Yankees' Nick Swisher, putting the Sox down early again in a game they would lose 6-4, to fall four games under .500 and 13 1/2 games out of first place.

Boston pitchers' first-inning ERA this season: 6.65, which ranks 29th among the 30 major-league teams. Only the Twins, at 6.94, have been worse.

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Overall, dating back to the start of last September's collapse, Red Sox starters have a 5.19 ERA over the last 147 games. Only the Indians, Twins and Rockies have been worse.

It's easy to cast this as a Josh Beckett/Jon Lester problem. The Red Sox are indeed 16-28 in games started by their supposed two aces, and with Beckett on a contract that pays him an average $17 million a year (more than the combined total of every pitcher who has started a game for the Indians), there's a lot more expected from him than, say, Felix Doubront or Aaron Cook.

But the problem is deeper than just the supposed front two guys in the rotation. It's not really an injury problem, either, not unless you believe that John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka were going to make a real difference.

It's a problem that Theo Epstein didn't address last summer, when he made Erik Bedard his big trade-deadline acquisition. It's one Ben Cherington didn't address last winter, when he and his staff decided that Daniel Bard could become a starter (a project that has since been abandoned).

It's a problem that will need to be addressed this coming winter, no matter how the Red Sox deal with the higher-profile issue of who sits in the manager's office.

At this point, it's hard to believe it can be Valentine, who was dealt a bad hand and has played it even worse.

He has basically no support in the clubhouse, and hasn't since the season began. There are issues with the coaching staff, issues with the front office, issues everywhere.

The problems need fixing. The clubhouse may need change, even if the manager is changed first.

But the Red Sox had better understand that the rotation needs fixing, too.

You could say that the problem is so obvious that they can't miss it. But just remember, it seemed obvious last winter, too, and they didn't get it taken care of.

This winter, like last winter, could be busy. It could be hectic.

When it's over, who will be pitching the first inning?

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