Red Sox camp report: It's not about character, it's about pitching

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Walking into the Red Sox clubhouse for the first time this spring, Jonny Gomes wasn't sure what to expect.

You might be surprised by what he found.

"It was like they'd won the division last year," Gomes said this week.

You might remember that they didn't. That they didn't even win 70 games. That things were so bad that the Red Sox had to go out and add a bunch of "character" guys like Gomes.

Some of it is true. There's no doubt the Red Sox need to move past last year, and their worst season in decades. There's no doubt the atmosphere needed to change.

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But the biggest problem the Red Sox faced last year wasn't a lack of character. It was a lack of pitching.

For all the talk of fried chicken and beer, and for all the talk of Bobby Valentine's one-year circus, the biggest issue the Red Sox have faced since it all fell apart in that crazy month of September is that their starting pitching simply hasn't been good enough.

For the last seven months of baseball -- the final month of 2011 and the six months of 2012 -- Red Sox starters combined for a 5.42 ERA. No team in the American League is worse over that time.

In all of baseball, only the Rockies were worse, and they spent last summer and then this past winter overhauling everything they do about pitching, trying to find a solution.

The Red Sox changed managers, changed pitching coaches and changed the entire tone in their clubhouse. But they also expressed faith in the same starters who failed them down the stretch in 2011 and then for all of 2012.

Manager John Farrell described his level of confidence in the rotation as "high."

"We've got talented guys, and there's been encouraging signs," Farrell said.

He's right, on both counts. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz were big contributors to the problems of last year, but they were also big contributors to the years of success that came before. John Lackey, for all his failures as with the Red Sox, was a 19-game winner and staff ace with the Angels.

Lackey has looked very good in his return from Tommy John surgery. Lester seems to have corrected some of the flaws that led to his own 2012 downfall. He talks about pitching on a downward plane this spring, fixing the issues that as he puts it, caused his cutter to come in flat and his curve to get loopy.

"All the things that we talked about that I didn't do last year," he said.

Lester was among the American League ERA leaders for three straight years, from 2008-10. He would have been there again in 2011, if not for an awful final four starts when he had a 8.24 ERA, as opposed to 2.93 for 27 starts to that point.

Then came 2012, when his 4.82 ERA ranked 76th among the 85 full-time major-league starting pitchers.

"For me, the biggest thing was the embarrassment of not being me," Lester said.

He talks about getting back to what he was in 2010. So does Buchholz, who responded to a question about Farrell's return to the Red Sox by saying, "He was around in 2010, so he's seen what I can do when everything's right."

It's easy to look at the Red Sox roster and think this will again be a last-place team in the balanced American League East. Seriously, which division rival can you definitively say they're better than?

They lost 93 games last year, and while the winter additions may fill needed roles, they didn't add any established stars.

But all that changes if the starting pitching improves greatly. That all changes if they're going to get the Jon Lester of 2010 and the Clay Buchholz of 2010 and the John Lackey of even 2009 (let alone the 19-win Lackey of 2007).

If the starting pitching results change, then maybe everything changes.

After all, for all the talk about character, it's not like this is a team that needs to learn how to win. There's been big turnover since 2007, the year of the last World Series, but the strongest voices in the clubhouse are still Dustin Pedroia's and David Ortiz's.

"We won for a long time," general manager Ben Cherington said. "As bad as [2012] was, I don't think one year changes the psyche of a team. These guys have had success."

Sure enough, when you watch and listen to the Red Sox this spring, you don't get the sense they're a team lacking belief or ambition.

Gomes talks about how things were with the then-Devil Rays when he first came to the big leagues. He talks of listening to Tino Martinez in his first spring training, and hearing Martinez say, "There's one word I haven't heard mentioned in this camp: playoffs."

Compare that to the Red Sox, where Lester said, "I think if you ask anyone in our clubhouse, their expectation is to win the World Series."

"That's all that's talked about here," Gomes said.

These aren't the A's, the young team Gomes helped lead on a shocking division title run last year. The Red Sox may benefit from their change in culture, but they don't need to re-learn how to win.

What they can't have is another season where their starting pitchers are the American League's worst.

It's not really about character, and it's only in a small way about whether John Farrell is a better fit for this group than Bobby Valentine was (although it's hard to imagine he could be a worse fit).

It's about pitching, starting pitching.

It's about Lester and Buchholz, and perhaps it's about Lackey, too.

And if the pitching returns to what it once was, perhaps the Red Sox will, as well.

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