Sunday, August 7, 2011

Minus Millwood, a tougher road lies ahead for PawSox

Eight days after a near-export of cleanup hitter Lars Anderson threatened to complicate their hustle in the playoff derby, the PawSox reluctantly released prized pitcher Kevin Millwood Sunday morning.

With the abrupt exit of their eldest rostered player in the 2011 season, the rest of Arnie Beyeler’s pupils are left to prove they are big enough to make it against fellow International League playoff contenders, top dog pitching and bus legs. All of the aforementioned elements are a closer than merely on the horizon.

A member of the Red Sox organization for all of 67 days, each of them spent in Beyeler’s clubhouse, Millwood was granted his request to seek more fertile grounds as his odds of restoring his Major League presence in Boston were next to nonexistent. The traffic congestion all but hit its maximum limit when general manager Theo Epstein sought the services of Oakland hurler Rich Harden, for whom Anderson would have been compensation, then reeled in Erik Bedard from Seattle.

Of course, the dignified Major League veteran’s gain is nothing but Pawtucket’s loss in its ongoing drive to secure an International League playoff passport. At the time of Millwood’s departure, which preceded the rain-induced cancellation of Sunday’s home bout with Buffalo, the PawSox held a 1.5 game lead over Gwinnett for the wild card. Sunday’s rainout denied them an opportunity to pole-vault Lehigh Valley into first place in the Northern Division.

If not for the Sunday’s two slices of unwanted news for the McCoy Stadium masses, the Sox would have finished their series with the besieged Bisons and then ventured south for the next eight days. Millwood would have been taking the hill in Charlotte this Wednesday, vying to build upon his 5-1 record in 13 starts with Pawtucket.

Odds are he then would have started the finale of an all-important four-game visit to Gwinnett, the top development team of his old friends in Atlanta. The side story concerning Millwood’s reception at Coolray Field would have been mere sprinkles on the sundae as his latest squad engages the league’s best pitching staff and tries to pull farther away from the G-Braves on the wild-card leaderboard.

With Kyle Weiland’s start abolished on Sunday, the order of the PawSox rotation is all the more uncertain. Felix Doubront, who pitched a pair of 1-2-3 innings for Single-A Lowell on Saturday, should be returning to the equation in the near future.

But when Doubront is back, he is now merely filling the void left by Millwood rather than adding a welcome extra layer. In turn, Beyeler is all but deprived of the choice between keeping Tony Pena, Jr., Saturday night’s winner at McCoy, in a deep six-man rotation or returning him to the bullpen, where Pena is equally if not more effective.

The presumptive quintet of Weiland, Pena, Doubront, Matt Fox and another seasoned Major Leaguer in Brandon Duckworth should still be fairly irreproachable. They should still constitute one of the I.L.’s top pitching staffs and put forth an entertaining series against Gwinnett’s regal staff.

With that being said, one needn’t be much of a stats scholar to conclude that Millwood’s presence would have improved Pawtucket’s odds of earning a “great” rather than “good” pitching label when the final report cards come out around Labor Day. Pawtucket won each of his first 10 starts, helping him garner credit for five of those wins, and the two more recent losing causes ended in a one-run differential.

Furthermore, Millwood deserved better than the L-shaped albatross that inevitably fell upon his neck in what proved his penultimate PawSox game and his last decision. On the night that everyone thought Anderson was on his way to the opposite coast, Millwood struck out a season-high 10 challengers from the Louisville Bats.

And he could have left with two outs in the sixth inning and a 2-2 tie intact. But on the heels of two straight Ks, Millwood yielded three straight singles, the last of which constituted the go-ahead run. Beyeler had simply left him on the hill one or two batters too many and Millwood’s offensive mates were no help in stranding 10 baserunners on the night.

Regardless, in the coming two weeks, the PawSox will test their new post-Millwood pitching staff and their off-and-on offense, possibly bolstered by the signing of free agent Brett Carroll.

And by the looks of the slate, it could be a torture test.

After Charlotte, the likes of Carroll, Ryan Lavarnway and Che-Hsuan Lin, none of whom were with the team when the G-Braves visited McCoy in May, will face the ultimate barometer in Georgia.

And once that series and road trip is completed, the Sox will face the most taxing travel day back home. At nearly 900 miles, Gwinnett constitutes the most geographically distant opponent away from McCoy.

Less than 24 hours after the series finale at Coolray Field next Monday, the PawSox will have to make the hasty turnaround back home. Waiting for them to commence a four-game set will be none other than the Columbus Clippers, the runaway league-leaders with a 72-42 record entering Sunday’s action.