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Panic Time for the Red Sox?

Two questions emerged from the Yankees’ 13-6 pasting of the Red Sox Thursday:

1) Is John Smoltz finished?

2) With the Sox fading fast and the Rays making a push, is it time for some good old-fashioned panic to engulf Boston?

In Smoltz’s case, enough of an answer came Friday, when the Red Sox designated him for assignment, meaning the club has 10 days to trade or release him.  The former would appear highly unlikely, especially after the Yankees destroyed him Thursday.  It’s sad to say, but what team in its right mind would be willing to invest in Smoltz after his performance Thursday night?

As opposed to elements of his previous starts, there was nothing to spin positively after the 42-year-old vet surrendered eight earned runs in 3 1/3 innings, walking four.  He gave up more runs, walked more batters and lasted fewer innings than any of his other seven starts.

While his velocity and quality of stuff was sufficient throughout his time with Boston — he routinely touched 92 on the radar gun and had some bite on his slider at times — he seemed to have totally lost the art of painting corners.  His pitches weren’t just catching chunks of the plate; they were pretty much going right down the middle.  Which explains why opposing hitters batted .343 against him and sent nearly 15 percent of fly balls out of the yard (Smoltz’s career home run per fly ball rate is 9 percent).

So in a word, yeah, it looks like the last chapter in the illustrious career of John Smoltz has just been written.

With Smoltz gone and the Sox reeling, that leads to the greater issue of when and how much panic should set in.  Considering Tim Wakefield remains out, Dice-K still hasn’t thrown since being shut down, Clay Buchholz is permanently in the rotation (and struggling) and Brad Penny barely passes for a fifth starter, the starting pitching depth — what used to set the Red Sox apart from everyone else — has been reduced to a pair of aces and nothing more.

In the short term, that is a major cause for concern.  The team called up 23-year-old rookie Junichi Tazawa, who has burned through the Minors, posting a 2.55 ERA in 20 starts between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket.  But make no mistake: his callup is a desperation move made out of necessity.  Theo Epstein likely never envisioned having to promote him so soon.

The good news is that the two legit hurlers the Sox boast have become the gold standard for righty/lefty attacks in the game today.  If Josh Beckett handles his business Friday and Jon Lester continues his mastery of the Yanks Sunday night, Boston could salvage a split of the four-game set that began with Smoltz’s train wreck.

The AL East may be lost (it is), but the Red Sox still very much control their own playoff destiny.  Of course, they are going to need a major upgrade in the quality and consistency of pitching down the stretch.

However, as long as they can weather the immediate storm — keep in mind Boston still leads the wild card race by 2 1/2 games over Tampa Bay (is anyone really sweating Texas?) — with September will come a more favorable schedule, along with the returns of a healthier Wakefield and recharged Dice-K.

As opposed to last season, when Beckett was pitching hurt and was thus ineffective in the playoffs, the 2009 Red Sox are built to make a run in October, particularly in a short series against the same Angels team they’ve been bullying around for the last five falls.

Superior starting pitching, a lights-out closer and timely hitting, that is the formula for success in October.  There is no better playoff tandem than Beckett and Lester, and Jonathan Papelbon has not once cracked in the postseason.

So is there cause for panic right now?  Yes, very much so.  But baseball is a long season, and there’s a lot yet to be played.  The Red Sox are going through a tough stretch, but if they can emerge from it without looking up too far at the Rays in the standings, these grueling dog days of summer could end up being vague and distant memories come the early days of autumn.

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