There has never been a question about the raw materials that Rubby De La Rosa possesses, about the capability to deliver the sort of performances like he did on Saturday night when he fired seven shutout innings with eight strikeouts in leading the Red Sox to a 7-1 win over the Rays. But there was considerable uncertainty about whether he would be able to do anything with his considerable gifts in his time with the Red Sox.
It's a familiar tale. The list of prospects who are long on talent and short on results is long. It remained to be seen whether De La Rosa -- a pitcher with an arm and ceiling like few others, but without the big league results to back it up -- might join the list of cautionary tales in the need to temper expectations.
"Prospects are like gold now," opined Red Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski. "But at some point, they've got to come up to the big leagues and become suspects. At some point, you've got to throw them into the fire and see what happens."
So often in 2013, in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, De La Rosa seemed to battle himself on the mound. As he rebuilt arm strength, his mechanics were inconsistent and he lost location, with visible frustration following.
There were glimpses of the wildly promising prospect who had made a formidable impression in a 10-star big league debut with the Dodgers in 2011 -- before he required Tommy John surgery, before he ended up being traded to the Red Sox in the August 2012 blockbuster -- but those represented hints.
Scouts who saw him struggle to a 4.26 ERA in Triple-A Pawtucket while striking out roughly a batter an inning but walking an unsightly 5.4 per nine innings would shake their heads. The talent was undeniable, but the struggles were visible, as De La Rosa represented something of a mechanical mess.
The Sox looked beyond what De La Rosa was in 2013 -- a year of transition as he returned to the mound, adjusted to pitch count restrictions, assimilated into a new and unfamiliar rotation -- to what he could be.
"Any time a guy is coming off of Tommy John, we've seen guys really struggle or be challenged," explained Sox farm director Ben Crockett. "Rubby threw the ball well last year and really flashed some great performances at times. I think the level of consistency wasn't there. And now the hope was for him, not only the stuff coming back -- which we did see last year -- but the consistency and the command, and I think that's something that often is the last thing to come back.
"I think you're always trying to give guys, when you've seen something you've liked from a player, you're always trying to give them the opportunities to either show it again, to show it more consistently, to take the next step beyond that. I think that's always the balance that we're trying to strike.
"At the same time," added Crockett, "at some point, there needs to be progress shown."
De La Rosa failed to do so in spring training. In four games, the right-hander permitted six runs on 13 hits and three walks in 7 1/3 innings while punching out five. When the Red Sox sent him down from big league camp to Triple-A on March 20, it was unclear when he'd find his way back to the major leagues and in what role.
De La Rosa possessed a starter's mix -- of that there was little doubt. His ability to dial mid-90s velocity and complement it with two swing-and-miss secondary offerings (a changeup and slider) pointed to the arsenal of a rotation member. But in the spring, he appeared prone to lapses in both his control and his concentration on the mound that raised questions about whether his big league future would be realized in the rotation or in shorter stints out of the bullpen, particularly given that the 25-year-old was in his final year with options with the Red Sox.
"He took a long list of things after spring training and of course you can see the results. He took everything that we expected from him, that we told him before the season after we sent him down because of course the results were not happening in spring training. And we thought, man, we've got to make some moves," said pitching coach Juan Nieves. "He took every bit of it with a large grain of urgency and you see it."
The checklist was lengthy: A more upbeat tempo in his delivery; standing taller on the mound; not over-rotating on the rubber so that his direction was towards and through home plate rather than spinning off of it; keeping the hands in front of the body from the windup as opposed to over the head to decrease movement and make his delivery more repeatable; the reintroduction of a curveball to go with the fastball/slider/changeup mix to vary the looks and velocities at which he was working.
It was a lot to digest -- enough that it was hard to know if De La Rosa could make all the adjustments to be able to realize his considerable potential. But just before the start of the season, in a bullpen session with PawSox pitching coach Rich Sauveur, there was a eureka moment. De La Rosa managed to make the adjustments to his delivery and repeat them, pitch after pitch, each of his offerings darting over the plate and staying down, something he carried into the start of the season.
"He's been really focused on what his job is. I've seen his concentration levels a lot higher," Sauveur explained in early May. "It's execution. He's just sticking with his game plan, his strengths. And he's pitching right now."
De La Rosa showed utter dominance to start the year in Pawtucket. He had a 1.19 ERA with 21 strikeouts and four walks through four starts, but then hit a four-start rough patch (17 runs in 19 2/3 innings, 18 strikeouts, 16 walks) that dropped him behind teammates Brandon Workman and Allen Webster in the pecking order for a likely call-up.
But in a well-timed pair of starts, De La Rosa reasserted himself in late-May, giving up two runs in 11 innings with 13 strikeouts and three walks while showing an exceptional pitch mix and repeating his delivery. And so, when Clay Buchholz landed on the DL (at a time when Workman was already up in the big leagues), it was De La Rosa who had positioned himself for the summons.
"We had some tough choices. There are some guys throwing the ball pretty well down there," said Crockett. "But Rubby had shown that he was ready by the consistency that he'd shown early and the last two starts, regaining that momentum."
Still, any time a pitcher is called up, there's a Gumpian box of chocolates phenomenon to what they might do in that first start, with little idea about whether the adrenaline of the opportunity might overwhelm their capacity to remain focused and in charge of their talents.
De La Rosa, however, harnessed the moment with an amazing performance. He threw 105 pitches, with a startling 69 percent of them going for strikes. He elicited 18 swings and misses -- 13 on a ridiculous 90 mph changeup qua whiffle ball, three on his slider, two on a fastball that sat in the mid-90s and topped out at 99 mph, with nearly everything thrown down.
The swings and misses and the career-high in strikeouts were secondary, in some ways, to the zero walks he permitted and the 11 groundball outs he recorded, with the Rays failing to get a single ball out of the infield between the third and seventh innings. He became just the third Red Sox pitcher age 25 or younger to throw seven shutout innings without a walk since 2001, joining Jon Lester and Felix Doubront in that accomplishment.
This was a glimpse of a pitcher's ceiling when he is in complete charge of his gifts. This was what the Red Sox had hoped for, and patiently awaited, in the time since acquiring him.
"Obviously, you guys saw the results, but you're talking about a guy who can throw 98, 99, and throw the changeup he was throwing along with the slider, it's going to be fun. And he was throwing it over the plate. He threw three pitches for strikes at any time. And the way his ball moves and the way he's able to do that, heck, he could be real successful if he can throw it over the plate like that every time," said Pierzynski. "Every pitch he threw and everything he was able to do, he looked like a big league pitcher out there who'd been here for 10 years. Obviously his velocity is the first thing you notice, but then the movement is right there and then the ability to throw more than one pitch for a strike is what kind of put him over the top tonight."
The Red Sox and De La Rosa now have a clearer picture of what is within reach for the right-hander. A pitcher who'd become forgotten in the conversation about Red Sox prospects (in part because his time in the big leagues in 2011 made him "ineligible" for most prospect lists) has now reasserted himself as a player of rare promise, a pitch mix unmatched by nearly any other pitcher in the Red Sox system.
In that sense, Saturday night marked a dazzlingly beginning -- but only that. It created a sense of possibility for the pitcher, whose coming performances with Buchholz on the DL will represent an opportunity to solidify a resounding initial impression.
"We'll see," said Nieves. "This is only a small sample of it. The consistency of it is going to be the most important part."
"I know I've heard whispers about how good this kid can be and I saw little glimpses of it in spring training," added Pierzynski. "But to actually see him do it on this stage, in this situation, especially after [Friday] night and all that went down [between the Sox and Rays], was impressive, and hopefully he learns from it, gains confidence and builds on it."