1. How will Josh Beckett return from the DL?

This is clearly the most pressing issue facing Boston right now. Beckett was and still is the ace of the pitching staff, despite the fact that he certainly has not pitched up to his standards in 2008. Perhaps it was all the BBQ and beer he consumed in the offseason, but Beckett hasn’t been right all year. And 11-9 with a 4.35 ERA is awful unless you’re one of the Paul Byrds of the world. But the bottom line is Beckett will be the key to another World Series run. The Sox seem to control their own fate in terms of the Wildcard, and while the AL East crown isn’t out of grasp, the Wildcard isn’t as daunting a task. Expect to see Francona and Co. slowly bring Beckett back, because Boston will be better served pushing him deeper into games and on shorter rest come October. Fully healthy, only one potential playoff team has an ace that can match up with Beckett (John Lackey), and Boston will be in better shape if it sends Dice-K in game 2 and Lester in game 3. And if history tells us anything, Beckett will be asking for the ball in game 4. If he’s healthy enough to.

2. Can the bullpen get it to Papelbon with a lead?

Aside from K-Rod and possibly Joe Nathan and Mariano Rivera, Papelbon is the most dominate closer in the American League if not all of baseball. But what good is a closer if the bullpen can’t hold a lead. The most glaring error in my eyes at the trade deadline was Boston’s reluctance to make a move for relief help. Last year it was Delcarmen (7th) and Okajima (8th), but this year it’s been a revolving door and varied cast of characters. No one seems to want to step up and assume a key role in pressure situations. That being said, this could make things more difficult than expected for Boston to make the postseason. If they do, the starters will be forced to work deeper into games and could result in the Red Sox needing a 4th starter. Not good. Wakefield, Byrd, Buchholz, [[Bartolo Colon Colon]], et al. simply won’t be acceptable in playoff baseball, and if Justin Masterson is thrust into the role, he may not be able to go further than five innings. That’s four innings out of your bullpen. Gross. Masterson could be the wildcard here, however. Right now he seems like the best option in the 7th inning and could potentially stretch it out to two if needed. But if Okajima can avoid giving up the longball then maybe, just maybe he’ll do, and Papelbon will get some key save opportunities. Either than or the Sox offense of ’03 and ’04 would be welcome.

3. Will Lester hold up?

120, 150, 180. That’s Lester’s total innings at the professional level over the past three season. And a hard fought battle with cancer mixed in there, as well. He hit 97 in the first inning with his fastball, so right now he’s not showing any signs of slowing down. The best thing for Sox will be to secure a playoff spot early and rest their rising star down the stretch so he’s fresh for the playoffs. Looking back on 2007, you can bet that Sabathia (241 IP) and Carmona (215 IP) were worn out in the ALDS and ALCS against New York and Boston. And it showed. Last year Boston had Beckett, Schilling and then Dice-K, and over the course of the regular season, Lester has made Sox fans forget Schilling with ease. But if he and/or Beckett aren’t at full steam down the stretch, Schilling’s grittiness and determination when it mattered will be sorely missed.

4. Can Lowell (oblique) and Drew (back) return to the lineup?

As well as Youkilis, Lowrie and Jeff Bailey have done in Lowell’s absence, the regular third baseman will be welcomed back with open arms. Sean Casey is now on the DL, and “the Mayor” had been a tremendous addition to the clubhouse and lineup on a part-time basis. Can guys like Youk and Pedroia keep up this torrid pace of hitting? Maybe, but even so a veteran presence like Lowell is key in a postseason race. Picture this lineup: Ellsbury, Pedroia, Ortiz, Lowell, Youkilis, Drew (if healthy), Bay, Varitek and Lowrie. That’s pretty ridiculous.

5. Is Lowrie your shortstop for the rest of 2008?

Absolutely. For the rest of 2008, and into 2009 and beyond. Julio Lugo should just mail it in and the Sox should just bite the bullet on this one. Do this city a favor. That was another classic misread by Theo and I say the organization just buy out his contract and send him on his way. Lowrie drove in more runs in the month of August than Lugo did all season. And he has more homeruns…with two. Not only that, but Lowrie has been an on-base machine and can hit almost anywhere in that lineup because of just that. Showing improved defensive skills, he hasn’t been a liability in the field skeptics thought he’d be and has made all the routine plays. Can’t ask for much more out of the young kid.

6. Will Clay Buchholz pitch again at the major league level in 2008?

I hope not. Not to say he’ll be another Bud Smith of sorts, but Buchholz isn’t showing an impressive arsenal of stuff. In fact, my brother’s little league team banged him around the park for six runs over the first two innings in a game that ended in the mercy rule just last week. Not only does his stuff suck, but his attitude and demeanor are brutal too. I think we see more of Michael Bowden down the stretch than we do Bucholz. And I’m not sure we’ll see a whole lot of Bowden either. In fact I think we’ll see more of Keefe and I down the stretch than we do Bucholz. If I have my way, he’ll be starting 2009 in Portland.

7. How many no-name Nancies will we have to watch in September?

It’s already begun in tonight’s game against Baltimore. Jonathan Van Every? David Ross? Craig Smith? It’s nights like these I’m glad I can’t afford tickets to Fenway anymore. Not that the fans even notice as Boston will continue to sell out for the next hundred years. Which leads me to…

8. Should Boston’s attendance record even be compared with Cleveland’s?

Let’s be honest here: the only reason the Red Sox are poised to break this record is because all it takes is a few players’ wives and other family members to show up in order to call it a sell out. It’s the smallest park in baseball and while they continue to announce sell out attendances over 37,000, it’s because they keep jamming more seats in between seats and there are probably a couple thousand idiots dumb enough to stand for nine innings. The whole thing is over played and can’t hold a candle to the Jacobs (now Progressive) Field streak back in the 90’s when Manny was just a 7-hole hitter for that Indians ball club.

9. Pedroia for MVP?

Yea, the same guy people wanted out of the lineup and back in Pawtucket back in April of last year. He should be the front runner right now. Both Josh Hamilton and the Rangers have seen a significant drop off, and no every day players on the Angels or Rays have numbers that jump out at you. Carlos Quentin and Jermaine Dye make solid cases over in Chicago, but they could easily steal votes from each other although Quentin is probably the team MVP.

Look at Pedroia’s numbers: .330/16/75 with a .376 OBP and .872 OPS…for a 2nd baseman! He leads the league in average, hits, runs scored, multi-hit games and is third in doubles. And he’s tossed in 17 steals while playing a phenomenal 2nd base. The injury to Ian Kinsler strengthens his case because it now makes him the league’s most productive 2nd baseman. And he’s done all this with the departure of Manny Ramirez and significant injuries to Mike Lowell, JD Drew and David Ortiz. Even Youkilis has been falling ill as of late and seen limited action. After hitting .260 in the month of May, Pedroia hit .356 in June, .350 in July and then a stout .374 in August to go with his six homers and 20 RBI. Pretty good resume, and as much as I dislike him as a person, I have to admit he’s been the most valuable player to an AL team this season. Barring a strong final month by the likes of Quentin, Dye or dare I say, K-Rod, Pedroia should be the odds on favorite down the stretch.

What are your thoughts on these issues heading into the final month of play? Send us any others I may have overlooked and enjoy the final sprint to October.


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