Bobby Valentine was caught in between. Again.
Through six innings, the script couldn’t have been more perfect for the Red Sox. They sailed to a 7-1 lead, and finally, Clay Buchholz appeared to settle comfortably on cruise control. He needed just 92 pitches through the first six innings, and while he hadn’t struck out a single batter, his two- and four-seam fastballs were darting all over the place, splintering bats in the hands of the Indians lineup members.
It was a turn-back-the-clock effort in which the pitcher appeared capable of sparing the Red Sox bullpen from having to shoulder what has become an enormous nightly burden. There was nothing in the game to suggest that Buchholz should be on a short leash. But on the season? That was another story.
Buchholz had faded quickly in other starts, turning potentially strong games into contests that continued a succession of head-scratching lines. And so, when Johnny Damon negotiated a seven-pitch single against Buchholz, it seemed fair to wonder when it would be time to take the ball from the starter, offer a pat on the shoulder for a job well done.
But the Sox had not yet warmed up any relievers. Instead, it was only at that time that the bullpen raced to life, with Rich Hill and Vicente Padilla both jumping up. A first-pitch single by switch-hitter Jason Kipnis followed, and then, a six-pitch walk to Asdrubal Cabrera.
Only then did Valentine make the move to the bullpen, summoning Rich Hill to face Travis Hafner with the bases loaded and one out. Hill walked Hafner to force in a run, got a groundball from Carlos Santana that was muffed at third by Will Middlebrooks for a run-scoring error, then passed the baton to Andrew Miller, who allowed a run-scoring single before escaping the inning.
An uncharacteristically comfortable game for the Red Sox suddenly turned into a high-wire act for the duration of the game, with the Red Sox bullpen holding on for dear life in an eventual 7-5 victory. Buchholz got his win and, more importantly perhaps, had a start in which the final line (6 1/3 innings, 3 earned runs) suggested that he had not been hit all over the park.
Still, the final impression of the night was not quite as dominant as it could have been.
“That part of the lineup is a little tough in the seventh inning. You know, they have two switch-hitters sandwiching a left-handed hitter. I was just hoping that we’d have two guys on and two outs and not three guys on and one out when that happened,” Valentine explained after the game of his management of Buchholz. “It was a tough decision, but I felt comfortable with a six-run lead and an outstanding left-hander (Hill) coming in against a left-hander.”
It happens. Managers find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place all the time, trying to figure out when to shift the game from the hands of a starter to those of the bullpen to finish it out. And Valentine knows what’s at stake in those decisions.
“Like my mother always said, every game that’s lost, a pitcher comes out too soon or stays in too long,” said Valentine. “If you think there’s excellence in that decision-making process, you’re right. If you think that there’s perfection in it, you’re wrong. All you have to do is have the guy you bring in get a line drive that’s caught, or have the guy that you leave in have ball four swung at. Then, maybe you’re doing a great job.
“If all I was to do was to judge all my decisions in all my games on players’ performances and outcomes, then I’d go crazy, and I’d want to kill all of them. I’d kill myself.”
The task is made quite a bit more daunting when a pitching staff has been ineffective (as has been the case for most of the year with the Sox) and when a bullpen has been red-lined for weeks at a time.
“It’s a challenge,” Valentine said of the process of determining how long to go with a starting staff that he’s managed for just 32 games. “I bounce things off of my pitching coach as we’re watching things go. We’re watching what part of the lineup we’re facing, what they’ve done prior to that moment, see what pitches are working the prior inning and guess.
“You can always err on the short side, and when you do, you put it in the hands of the bullpen. When you have a secure situation in the bullpen, or a rested situation in the bullpen, those things are easy. When it’s a little less settling, then you try to bridge the gap with what you have because it’s a known rather than an unknown. You try to get to that place of comfort. It’s difficult, and it hasn’t worked out very well. Sometimes it has. Sometimes it’s worked out perfectly. Sometimes it hasn’t.”
It is with startling frequency that Valentine is finding himself at an uncertain pivot point in the game, and more often than not, he’s erred on the side of leaving in a pitcher, only to see the move backfire. No fewer than 10 outings have seen Valentine stay with a starter only to see that faith go unrewarded. A synopsis:
April 10: Daniel Bard (1st start), 7-3 loss at Blue Jays
5-plus innings, 5 runs, 8 hits, 1 walk, 6 strikeouts
Through 5 innings: 3 runs, 7 hits, 0 walks, 6 strikeouts, 84 pitches
5th inning: 7-pitch lineout, 6-pitch strikeout, 5-pitch groundout
6th inning: six-pitch walk, six-pitch infield single
Analysis: This was Bard’s first big-league start, and he’d been working deep into at-bats while generating a ton of swings and misses against the Blue Jays. He had 84 pitches through five innings. Given that the fifth inning had been of the 1-2-3 variety, the idea of sending him out for the sixth made sense, but even though the outcome wasn’t horrendous, sticking with Bard at a time when his command faltered for his first walk of the game was questionable. Justin Thomas ended up allowing both inherited runners to score.
April 16: Daniel Bard (2nd start), 1-0 loss vs. Rays
6 2/3 innings, 1 run, 4 hits, 7 walks, 7 strikeouts
Through 6 innings: 0 runs, 3 hits, 4 walks, 6 strikeouts, 87 pitches
6th inning: 5-pitch single, 3-pitch strikeout, 2-pitch double play
7th inning: 2-pitch groundout, 3-pitch strikeout, 6-pitch walk, 5-pitch single, 4-pitch walk, 4-pitch walk.
Analysis: Valentine said after the game that, once Bard retired the first two batters of the inning, he made the decision to stick with the right-hander. By the end of the inning, when he issued back-to-back four-pitch walks, even Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (the recipient of the final walk) admitted that he was surprised that Bard remained in the game at a time when his command was faltering.
April 25: Clay Buchholz (4th start), 7-6 win at Twins
5 1/3 innings, 5 runs, 10 hits, 3 walks, 2 strikeouts, 107 pitches
Through 5 innings: 1 run, 7 hits, 2 walks, 1 strikeout, 88 pitches
5th inning: 1-pitch groundout, 4-pitch groundout, 4-pitch groundout
6th inning: 4-pitch strikeout, 1-pitch bunt single, 3-pitch single, 6-pitch double, 5-pitch walk
Analysis: Buchholz had been dominant through five innings, even if somewhat inefficient. In this instance, the two singles were both weak, so it wasn’t as if Buchholz was getting hit all over the park. Still, his endurance has seemed to wane dramatically around 90-100 pitches, in part because he’s been knocked out of games early on multiple occasions this year, in part, perhaps, because he’s working his way back after missing the final months of last season.
April 29: Josh Beckett (5th start), 4-1 loss at White Sox
6 2/3 innings, 3 runs, 6 hits, 3 walks, 8 strikeouts, 126 pitches
Through 6 innings: 3 runs, 5 hits, 1 walk, 8 strikeouts, 97 pitches
6th inning: 7-pitch strikeout, 5-pitch flyball, 4-pitch flyball
7th inning: 3-pitch groundout, 6-pitch foul out, 3-pitch infield single, 5-pitch walk, 12-pitch walk
Analysis: Of all the outings in which Valentine had a slow hook, this might be the most forgivable. Beckett has the track record -- both in 2012 and before -- to suggest that he can work through seven innings. The infield single in the seventh was hardly a red flag.
Even with the five-pitch walk, Beckett was then at 114 pitches, a substantial but not absurd total. It was a borderline call; in retrospect, it’s easy to say that Valentine made a mistake in leaving Beckett in too long, given where his pitch count ended up and the fact that the Sox ended up skipping his next start due to the stiffness in his lat. Still, it would have been difficult to anticipate a 12-pitch walk.
Even so, that is one of the decisions that Valentine most regrets.
“There have been times, Beckett in that last at-bat, I get upset with myself when I haven’t thought of something. I didn’t think about that -pitch at-bat,” said Valentine. “[The right thing to do would have been to] take him out with two outs. Just take him out -- that’s enough, you can’t get this guy, it’s 3-1, he doesn’t get the win, let’s go to the bullpen.”
April 30:Clay Buchholz (5th start), 11-6 win vs. A’s
6 2/3 innings, 6 runs, 7 hits, 5 walks, 5 strikeouts, 99 pitches
Through 6 innings: 1 run, 4 hits, 3 walks, 5 strikeouts, 72 pitches
6th inning: 4-pitch single, 2-pitch double play grounder, 3-pitch strikeout
7th inning: 4-pitch single, 5-pitch walk, 2-pitch lineout, 3-pitch groundout, 8-pitch walk, 1-pitch infield single, four-pitch home run
Analysis: Buchholz had an extremely low pitch count through six dominant innings after which the Sox enjoyed an 11-1 lead, but his night unraveled quickly in the seventh, when once again, he gave a performance that suggested that he’s struggling with his stamina. In this instance, once the eight-pitch walk had been issued, even with two outs, it would have seemed an opportune time to lift Buchholz to make sure that he walked off the mound feeling good about his outing. Instead, an infield single and a Josh Reddick homer on a good curveball just off the former Sox outfielder’s shoe tops left Buchholz and the Sox once again scratching their heads.
May 2: Daniel Bard (4th start), 4-2 loss vs. A’s
5 1/3 innings, 4 runs, 8 hits, 2 walks, 1 strikeout, 101 pitches
Through 5 innings: 1 run, 4 hits, 2 walks, 1 strikeout, 78 pitches
5th inning: 3-pitch flyout, 8-pitch strikeout, 3-pitch groundout
6th inning: 7-pitch single, 1-pitch flyout, 1-pitch double, 5-pitch double, 4-pitch hit by pitch, 5-pitch double
Analysis: Once again, Bard proved a challenge for Valentine to manage. But once the ringing contact commenced, whether after the first or second double, his continued presence in the game seemed increasingly difficult to comprehend, particularly given that the Red Sox had an off day the following day.
May 5: Aaron Cook (1st start), 8-2 loss vs. Orioles
2 2/3 innings, 7 runs (6 earned), 8 hits, 1 walk, 0 strikeouts, 48 pitches
Through 2 innings: 1 run, 2 hits, 1 run, 2 hits, 0 walks, 0 strikeouts, 25 pitches
2nd inning: 4-pitch flyout, 4-pitch groundout, 1-pitch single, 3-pitch single, run-scoring passed ball, 3-pitch groundout
3rd inning: 1-pitch lineout, 2-pitch bunt single, wild pitch, 5-pitch walk, caught stealing, 5-pitch single, 5-pitch homer, 1-pitch double, 3-pitch single, 2-pitch single
Analysis: The Red Sox were coming off a 13-inning loss in which the bullpen had pitched the last seven innings, so the desire to squeeze as many innings out of Cook (after Chris Davis had gashed his leg with a slide into home in the second inning on the run-scoring passed ball) was easy to understand. That said, Cook said his leg was numb, and he clearly had nothing. His inability to use his legs represented a risk to his arm.
May 7: Felix Doubront (6th start), 11-5 win at Royals
6 1/3 innings, 5 runs (3 earned), 7 hits, 3 walks, 2 strikeouts, 111 pitches
Through 6 innings: 4 runs (2 earned), 4 hits, 2 walks, 2 strikeouts, 87 pitches
6th inning: 3-pitch strikeout, 3-pitch strikeout, 2-pitch flyout
7th inning: 6-pitch single, 3-pitch foul out, 6-pitch single, 2-pitch single, 7-pitch walk
Analysis: Doubront had cruised and the Sox had been desperate for innings from their starters. Still, at a time when the team was even more desperate for wins, the decision to leave Doubront in the game represented a surprising risk. Once he gave up his second six-pitch single, having surpassed the 100-pitch threshold, he seemed cooked. He got to face two more batters, putting both on.
May 8: Daniel Bard (5th start), 6-4 loss at Royals
7-plus innings, 5 runs, 6 hits, 4 walks, strikeout, 96 pitches
Through 7 innings: 3 runs, 6 hits, 2 walks, strikeout, 86 pitches
7th inning: 2-pitch single, 2-pitch single, 2-pitch sac bunt, 2-pitch fielder’s choice, 3-pitch strikeout
8th inning: 6-pitch walk, 4-pitch walk
Analysis: Bard had been remarkably efficient through seven innings, but he navigated a tightrope in the seventh. Though he finished the seventh with a 96 mph fastball for a punchout, it seemed like an empty-the-tank kind of pitch. That being the case, once Bard issued a leadoff walk (putting the tying run on base at a time when the Sox led, 4-3) in the eighth, it seemed like he’d hit a wall. He stayed in to walk one more batter, Matt Albers greeted the first-and-second situation by giving up a three-run homer and the Sox endured a kick-to-the-groin loss.
Valentine has revisited that decision since the game, reflecting on the idea that he should have gone to a left-handed pitcher for Jarrod Dyson and Alex Gordon (both left-handed hitters) to start the inning with a right-hander ready for Billy Butler, the right-handed hitter whose three-run blast proved decision.
Still . . .
“I had two coaches that said they would have tackled me if I would have went to the mound,” Valentine said.
May 11: Clay Buchholz (7th start)
6 1/3 innings, 4 runs (3 earned), 8 hits, 3 walks, 0 strikeouts, 111 pitches
Through 6 innings: 1 run, 6 hits, 2 walks, 0 strikeouts, 92 pitches
6th inning: 2-pitch flyout, 7-pitch flyout, 3-pitch groundout,
7th inning: 5-pitch groundout, 7-pitch single, 1-pitch single, 6-pitch walk
Again, Buchholz had been efficient and impressive through six innings, and the Red Sox bullpen has been subjected to an obscene workload. But with the memory of the Oakland game still reasonably fresh, and the Sox desperate to give Buchholz a confidence-building outing that would end with a terrific line (after the pitcher had allowed at least five earned runs in each of his first six starts), it seemed surprising that a reliever wasn’t ready to enter once the first baserunner reached.
The issue is one upon which Valentine has ruminated at some length. He is mindful of the fact that a number of decisions he’s made have not worked out.
That said, he is also aware that he is still in the process of learning his rotation, and that there is a degree of the unknown that enters his decisions about how long to stay with his starters. That is particularly true of unknown quantities such as Bard, who is making his transition from relief to a starting role, Doubront, who is in a big league rotation on a regular basis for the first time, and Buchholz, who is feeling his way back from a campaign in which he lost a half-season to injury.
“You want to get better as it goes on. You want to learn. You want to learn from what’s going on,” said Valentine. “But the only way to know if you can ski the black diamond is by skiing the black diamond. You can’t stay on the blue in order to get better. You figure it out.”
Valentine has been working to do just that. As he discussed the management of his starters, he grabbed a card on which he had jotted down the start-by-start pitch counts of some of the pitchers whom the Rangers have moved from the bullpen to the rotation.
Neftali Feliz is 2-1 with a 3.38 ERA this year and 25 strikeouts in 31 innings in his move to the rotation this year. His pitch counts have been 108 (in 7 innings), 93 (in 5), 119 (in 8), 88 (in 5) and 105 (in 6). A year ago, as Alexi Ogando made the transition to the rotation, the Rangers had him throw 96 or fewer pitches in four of his first five starts, but between his fourth and ninth starts, he threw at least 114 pitches on three separate occasions.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to pitch counts,” said Valentine. “They’re learning as they go. If there was a formula, it would be easy.”
A pitcher such as Bard, who hasn’t started since 2007, represents a particular challenge. After his last outing, Bard suggested that his body still appears to be adjusting to a starter’s workload.
“You get to 90 pitches, I'm not tired to the point where I need to come out of the game by any means. But there is a fatigue that sets in, and it's about learning how to pitch with that little bit of fatigue,” Bard told reporters in Kansas City. “It’s not my arm; my arm felt great. It’s your whole body -- your legs, your lower back, everything. Just learn how to pitch in those conditions.
“That's kind of where I'm at right now -- trying to learn how to finish games and get through that 100 to 110 pitches strong all the way through the end instead of tailing off and losing command late.”
Valentine considered those comments and the suggestion that Bard is still making the physical adjustment to starting and working deep into games.
“Or is it the mental aspect? What is it?” he mused. “And if they swung at a couple of those pitches out of the zone and popped them up, then he was pitching perfect.”
But right now, the Red Sox starters are not getting the convenient pop-up when they remain in the games. And so, the management of the pitching staff is anything but perfect for Valentine as he tries to get a feel for when to make the call on his starters.
For now, he remains caught in an uncomfortable gray area that does not permit that luxury, eight games into a stretch of 20 games in 20 days that will tax the pitching staff and managerial decision-making like few other stretches in the season.