Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thursday likely Brad Penny's swan song

Hey, look at that: John Smoltz will make his last rehab start on the same day Brad Penny pitches. Both guys then will be lined up to pitch next Tuesday. That's a fun coincidence, isn't it?

Oh, wait. That's right.

You have to hope Penny gets a hefty standing ovation when he comes off the mound at Fenway Park on Thursday night. Unless something strange happens, it'll likely be the last time you see him pitch for the Red Sox -- and while he's easily the most expendable guy in the rotation, he did just as much as Tim Wakefield to keep the Red Sox afloat during the first two months of the season.

Remember these starts?

* April 11 at Los Angeles (5-4 win): 6 IP, 5 H, 3 ER
* April 22 vs. Minnesota (7-3 win): 6 IP, 6 H, 2 ER
* May 8 vs. Tampa Bay (7-3 win): 6 1/3 IP, 8 H, 3 ER
* May 14 at Los Angeles (5-4 loss): 6 1/3 IP, 7 H, 4 ER
* May 20 vs. Toronto (8-3 win): 6 2/3 IP, 9 H, 2 ER

All those starts came during a time when Josh Beckett was struggling, Jon Lester was struggling, and Daisuke Matsuzaka was either on the shelf or struggling. Penny gave the Red Sox everything they could have asked for -- including the flexibility to leave Clay Buchholz in the minor leagues to rebuild his confidence -- and after today, he'll likely land them a prospect or two in a trade, too.

Terry Francona, of course, declined to tip his hand about the future of Smoltz and the future of the rotation when asked by reporters on Wednesday.

"We've certainly had conversations, and Theo (Epstein) has been involved in all of those," Francona said. "We'll figure it out. These things have a way of getting worked out."

But barring a last-minute injury somewhere -- someone tripping as they're climbing the dugout stairs, maybe -- there's no way to fit Smoltz into the rotation other than trading Penny.

Penny can't be traded without his permission before June 15, but it's hard to imagine him refusing a trade on June 12 that could just as easily be made on June 15. He's not stupid. He's well aware of what's been swirling around him. The Red Sox likely will trade him to a National League contender -- the Mets, maybe, or the Phillies or the Brewers -- and he'll jump right into another starting rotation and keep doing what he's doing. He'll have a better chance to pitch in the playoffs with another team than he would with the Red Sox.

Either way, tonight almost certainly will be his last start with the Red Sox. One can only hope he gets the standing ovation he deserves. If the Red Sox win a World Series this season, after all, Penny will get his second ring -- and he'll have earned it.

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