The adventure that is Red Sox pitching

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byrd_paul_090830.jpgAs the Boston Red Sox continue to slog their way toward a potential playoff berth, there are three constant worries: Pitching, pitching and pitching.

The rotation has been an adventure all season, from the failed experiments of John Smoltz and Brad Penny, the erratic behavior and performances of Daisuke Matsuzaka, and the quiet strength of Josh Beckett.

Sunday was a mixed bag, including good, bad and ugly. It all makes you wonder what Boston’s rotation will look like come playoff time, provided they manage to hold off the Texas Rangers in the AL wild card race.

First the good:

Paul Byrd (pictured), a late-season pickup for Boston for the second straight season, dazzled in his first major league start since last September, not only baffling the Toronto Blue Jays, but outdueling Roy Halladay in the process, leading the Red Sox to a 7-0 victory.

Even better, Byrd claims to be a man of many talents:

“I’m just so excited to be back. I want a World Series ring,” he said. “Hopefully I can help this team get there. I’ll clean toilets if I have to, and I told them that.”

The bad:

Tim Wakefield, who had just returned last week after 5 ½ weeks on the disabled list, will have to have a cortisone shot on Monday after his 43-year-old back acted up once again.

Wakefield was an All-Star after anchoring the Red Sox’s rotation in the first half. But now it appears that age is finally catching up to the veteran knuckleballer.

“We’ll go from there and see if (the shot) takes and, if so, I’ll be pitching in a week or so,” Wakefield said Sunday morning before a game against Toronto.

The ugly:

Dice-K, out since June with a right shoulder strain, was horrendous in a minor league start on Sunday, allowing five runs in the first inning of a 5-3 loss. He pitched a perfect second inning, but his insane pitch count (49 in the first inning), meant his outing was cut short.

But hey, at least Clay Buchholz seems to be coming around. Or at least gaining confidence.

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Jose Canseco to join NBC Sports California as an A’s analyst

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Hey, I have a new coworker: Jose Canseco has been hired by NBC Sports California as an Athletics pregame analyst.

OK, maybe he’s not technically a coworker, as the folks at NBC Sports California — formerly CSN Bay Area — and I do not hang out at the water cooler, have potlucks in the conference room or exchange secret Santa gifts at Christmas time, but dang it, I’m gonna TELL people I work with Jose Canseco. The only downside will be people assuming that, because he and I are on the same team, my performance is something less than authentic. Or, perhaps, Canseco may write another book and tell all of my secrets.

Anyway, Canseco will be part of NBC Sports California’s A’s Pregame Live and A’s Postgame Live shows. Live TV can be hard. I’ve done a bit of it, and there is certainly more to that gig than meets the eye. You can’t always prepare for what happens on the fly. I’m sure Canseco will do well, however, as he’s great with coming up with the best stuff off the top of his head.

2017 Preview: Cleveland Indians

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Cleveland Indians.

The Cleveland Indians almost won the World Series without their best hitter for the whole season and two of their starting pitchers for the playoffs. This year that hitter — Michael Brantley — is back and the starters — Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — are healthy. Oh, and they added arguably the best free agent bat available in Edwin Encarnacion.

Baseball teams love to downplay their expectations, but given where the Indians are at the moment, anything less than another American League Pennant will have to feel like a disappointment, right? Fortunately for the Indians, they stand as the favorites to do just that.

They didn’t lose much in the offseason. Yes, World Series hero Rajai Davis is gone, but the Indians outfield will be fine if Brantley remains healthy. Mike Napoli‘s loss will be felt but it will be made up for with Encarnacion’s bat and probably then some. Coco Crisp left too, but he was not a key part of the equation.

The biggest losses are guys from last year who will start the year on the disabled list, most notably Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. Kipnis is just starting to work out following time off to rest his sore shoulder. Chisenhall ran into a wall the other day and is being evaluated. There is no sense that either will miss extended time, however.

Otherwise, the lineup should score a lot of runs, with on-base machines Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor setting the table for Encarnacion, Brantley and Carlos Santana, who is entering his walk year. The Indians trailed only the Red Sox in runs scored in the American League last year and they should score a lot of runs this year as well.

The strength of the club, however, remains its pitching. Corey Kluber looked like his old Cy Young self last year, particularly in the playoffs. Danny Salazar built on his excellent 2015 season in the first half before falling prey to injury. Carlos Carrasco posted an ERA+ of 141 before breaking his hand and Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer both stood out for fourth and fifth starters.

The bullpen is excellent too, as relief ace Andrew Miller is joined by Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and newcomer Boone Logan make up one of the relief corps in baseball.

Pitcher health is probably the biggest uncertainty for any contender, but the Indians have the best pitching in the AL if everyone stays healthy. And maybe even if one or two guys don’t.

It’s hard to find much fault with the 2017 Cleveland Indians. They are the class of their division and, while the slog of the regular season turns a lot of surefire contenders into hash before it’s all said and done, there is no reason to look at the Indians right now and think of them as anything other than the best team in the American League.

Prediction: First place, American League Central.