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Red Sox riding their rotation into crunch time

Doubront turns in stellar outing as starters continue to mow down batters

BOSTON -- If the most deafening roars heard around Fenway Park on Tuesday were after the majestic home run by Mike Napoli or the second long ball of the night by Shane Victorino (career-high seven RBIs), the most significant occurrence continued to be on the mound -- where the Red Sox have dominated of late.

Hitting heroics will win many games over the course of the summer. But as the calendar shifts close to September, pitching becomes the facet of the game to watch, because that is what typically wins championships.

And the reason the Red Sox have a very real possibility to make their first trip to the postseason in four years is because they finally have the starting pitching to do so.

All season, Boston's starting pitching has been solid. Of late? Spectacular would be a better way of describing it.

Over the past seven games, Sox starters have a 1.36 ERA, giving up eight earned runs over 53 innings. Each starter has allowed two runs or less during that stretch.

"They are able to adjust on the fly and see what other teams are doing," credited pitching coach Juan Nieves. "They know what's expected, and we expect the best from them all the time. Obviously they're stepping it up."

It has been a virtual baton passing in the rotation. Felix Doubront's turn was Tuesday night, and he held a dangerous Orioles' team to four hits and two runs over 6 2/3 innings, helping the Red Sox to a 13-2 win.

"It's great," said Doubront. "Every time when I see those guys, the veteran guys, [John] Lackey, Jonny [Lester], [Jake] Peavy, they give me more confidence. They've been around for a long time. I'm just looking forward to doing the same and trying to give my best and stay healthy."

With 29 games left in the regular season, Boston leads Tampa Bay by 2 1/2 games in the American League East.

Over the past 13 games, Sox starters have posted a 2.75 ERA, giving up two runs or fewer on 11 occasions.

Though the cast has been largely the same all season, Peavy came aboard on July 30 and has made an impact perhaps on all days -- not just those in which he pitches.

"I know Jake Peavy has injected a competitive spirit in addition to the guys that are here," said manager John Farrell. "The adage being, 'Can it become contagious? Can there be competition within?' I know one thing, when the guy goes to the mound and he leads by example, I think that gives some confidence to the guy that's following him."

Consider that the recently prodigious stretch by the starting rotation has come without ace Clay Buchholz (9-0, 1.71 ERA), and that makes it all the more impressive.

Buchholz has been sidelined since June 9 due to a right bursa sac strain, but he is expected back in the rotation after he makes two more Minor League rehab starts.

In the meantime, Peavy, Lester, Doubront, Lackey and Ryan Dempster, who will pitch on Friday for the first time since being handed a five-game suspension, will continue to try to keep this roll going.

"We want them to be out there for seven or eight innings. We want to outlast the opponent. That's the key to it all," said Nieves.

Last week in San Francisco, as Lester walked off the mound to end the eighth, he shouted to Farrell, "I'm finishing this game."

Although Lester wound up coming out with one out in the ninth, his competitive spirit that night said a lot about Boston's current group of starters.

There was another example of in-game toughness in Doubront's performance on Tuesday. In the top of the third inning, the Orioles loaded the bases with nobody out and Doubront walked Brian Roberts to force in a run. With the dangerous trio of Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Adam Jones looming, Doubront very easily could have buckled.

Instead, he induced a sacrifice fly, a popout to third and a strikeout and the Red Sox trailed just 2-1.

"That was quick. When I looked back, I've got the bases loaded. That was really fast," said Doubront. "A blooper, a broken bat. The most important was to limit the damage there, and I threw hard to Davis and Jones. I was able to get them out and limit the damage and continue with my game."

If there's been a constant for Boston this season, it has been the rotation. Sox starters hold a 3.81 ERA, second to only the Tigers in the AL.

"Yeah, our starters have truly been there since Opening Day," said outfielder Jonny Gomes. "I always say starting pitching generates offense. When you have an opportunity to get off your legs, when you have the opportunity to stay in the dugout and talk about plans against the other team's pitcher and talk about what he threw you versus fourth or fifth or sixth pitch, vs. having to run out on D, like I said … you saw it again tonight. Starting pitching generates offense."

And by the end of October, the Red Sox hope to be able to say that starting pitching also generates championships, something that Boston fans saw first-hand in 2004 and '07.

Ian Browne is a reporter for Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne.
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