Brad Penny wasn’t really in a position to talk before Saturday’s game. He simply did not know what his future -- specifically, his place in the Red Sox rotation -- held.
“I really don’t know anything,” he admitted.
Shortly before 1 p.m., Penny (7-8, 5.61) met briefly with manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell behind closed doors. A few moments later, Francona hopped upstairs for his pre-game media session, where he announced that Tim Wakefield will start on Wednesday, and that Penny had been asked to “sit tight” while waiting word on his future -- or lack thereof -- in the rotation.
The implications were clear. The Sox wanted to wait and see whether rookie Junichi Tazawa would spit the bit on Saturday against the Yankees before deciding whether Penny might get another start or whether his disastrous outing on Friday night represented his swan song.
After the contest, however, Penny -- who got shelled for 10 hits and eight runs in four innings, and is 1-5 with a 7.82 ERA in his last seven starts -- probably knows something more, and the new insights do not bode well for him.
Tazawa performed a masterful high-wire act. On a day when he gave up hits aplenty, he managed to splash zeros on the scoreboard for each of his six innings, an outing that permitted the Sox to stun the visiting Yankees, 14-1. (Recap.)
Sox officials said that no decision has been made about the rotation going forward, but Francona and Farrell plan to meet on Sunday to make a Project Runway style determination about who is in and who is out.
"There’s no decision here and now today," Farrell said after the game. "If you're asking, 'Is [Tazawa] going to start next Thursday?’ it's our plan to meet tomorrow to speak as a group to decide what we have coming up. Obviously, with Tim Wakefield returning, it creates a decision for us to make to make out the rotation as a whole.
“What [Tazawa] did today certainly didn't take away from his future opportunities or chances of making that start on Thursday, but we have not announced our rotation past [Sunday] night."
All the same, the conclusion now is virtually inevitable. Prior to Friday’s game, the Sox, according to a team source, were open to having Penny, Tazawa or Michael Bowden (who had been called up on Friday, but piggybacked Penny with a disastrous seven-run, two-inning outing, and was sent back down to the minors immediately after the game) take the open turn in the rotation.
Bowden’s return to the minors ruled him out immediately. Penny’s chances seemed to be dependent on Tazawa imploding. That didn’t happen. Indeed, Tazawa’s performance couldn’t have been much further divorced from those of Penny and Bowden.
Tazawa (2-2, 3.57) worked around eight hits in six shutout innings, stranding nine baserunners in the process. It was a remarkable display of the attributes that have impressed the Sox from the beginning.
Foremost, it was yet another demonstration of the fact that the 23-year-old, in his first professional season, possesses remarkable poise that belies his inexperience.
“He’s poised beyond his experience, that’s for sure. He did nothing today to make us feel any less about that,” said Francona. “It looks like if you’re going to beat him, you have to beat him. You’re not going to beat him because he was pitching in the Industrial League last year. He knows what he’s doing.”
Tazawa did not seem in awe of his setting or his opponent. He threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 27 hitters he faced. His biggest statement came when facing Alex Rodriguez in the top of the third.
Rodriguez was the man who crushed a curveball for a two-run, walk-off homer against Tazawa in the 15th inning of the pitcher’s major-league debut just two weeks earlier. But Tazawa showed no lingering concern about that match-up. He buckled Rodriguez with a 1-0 curveball that dropped over the insider corner for a strike.
After Rodriguez fouled off a fastball, Tazawa threw two more breaking balls, just missing inside and then outside. With the count full, Tazawa opted once again for his breaking ball. This time, the pitch that A-Rod hit for a game-winning homer again buckled the Yankees’ cleanup hitter for a called strike three.
“That was an interesting sequence,” said Francona.
It revealed Tazawa as enterprising and completely unafraid of failure, attributes that played a major role in the pitcher’s likely claim of ownership over the fifth starter’s job. After Saturday, it would be difficult to argue that the right-hander, less than one year removed from the Japanese Industrial league, is anything short of the team’s best option for the last spot in the rotation.
Here are four other lessons from the Sox’ romp at Fenway:
IF GAMES ARE DECIDED WITH TWO OUTS, THE RED SOX ARE IN GOOD SHAPE
At first, the claim seemed ridiculous.
“The difference in the game,” said Farrell, “was we got two-out hits for RBIs and they didn’t.”
The notion seemed almost absurd. The Red Sox, after all, put two touchdowns on the board. How on earth, in a 14-1 win, could such a simple element separate the two teams?
On further examination, however, it turned out that Farrell was dead on. The Sox scored 13 of their 14 runs with two outs. The Yankees admitted to frustration with the development.
“You think you’re close to getting out of the inning without a lot of damage,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, “and then they turn it into three runs or four runs and that hurts.”
If indeed two-out runs are pivotal, then the Sox have enjoyed a significant advantage this year. With two outs, the team leads the majors in runs (268), runs per game (2.2), OBP (.365), slugging (.463) and OPS (.828).
DUCKS ON THE POND REPRESENT TARGET PRACTICE FOR TAZAWA
Tazawa today became the first Red Sox pitcher to make a start of 6.0 or more scoreless innings while allowing at least one hit in every frame since Oil Can Boyd did it in a 4-0 win on April 8, 1988, at Texas (the can logged 6+ innings while also allowing eight hits). So how did Tazawa Houdini his way out of harm’s way?
He held the Yankees hitless in eight at-bats with runners in scoring position. The tighter the circumstance, the better he was. He seemed to generate extra velocity in such situations, popping his fastball through the zone at 93, up from the 90-92 where he most comfortably sat.
“He executed pitches, especially when they had runners on base,” said Francona. “He had a way of maybe dialing up that fastball a little bit, and not throwing it, but locating it with a little extra on it.”
It was not the first time that Tazawa had found more in the tank to handle such situations. He has now held major-league hitters to a .091 average (2-for-22) with runners in scoring position in his four games for the Red Sox.
The Yankees went 4-for-10 against Tazawa with the bases empty, and 4-for-14 with runners on base. That continued a trend. Opponents are now hitting .405 against Tazawa with the bases empty, and .269 with runners on base.
“I knew I would allow a couple of hits but I didn’t want to give in,” Tazawa explained. “I didn’t allow runs and I tried to locate my pitches to the good corners, which I could today.”
THE SOX ARE THREATENING TO BASH THEIR WAY TO THE POSTSEASON
It was just two weeks ago that the Yankees absolutely stifled the Red Sox. Boston endured its longest scoreless drought in three decades, going 31 straight innings without pushing a run across the plate. New York starters Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett produced a combined 22 1/3 scoreless innings. The lineup seemed futile.
That moment now seems like a distant memory. The Red Sox have been little short of explosive in recent games. The Sox put 11 runs on the board against New York in consecutive games, something the team had done only twice in the last 50 years. The Sox swatted four homers, and now have hit at least two longballs in each of the last eight games, a team record. The Sox are the runaway major-league leaders in homers this month with 39, and are tied for third with 119 runs and 6.0 runs per game this month.
Kevin Youkilis matched career highs with two homers and six runs batted in. Even so, the Red Sox corner infielder believed that there was something far more important in his performance than just personal glory, as he dedicated the performance to former minor-league teammate Greg Montalbano, who passed away on Friday.
David Ortiz, meanwhile, underscored that even in a season that has been most notable for the challenges he has faced, he remains an elite power hitter. Ortiz delivered a crucial two-out, two-run double in the first to get the Sox on the board, and then went on to rip a solo homer just over the Wall.
The homer was his 20th of the year, marking the eighth straight season (and seventh with the Sox) in which Ortiz had gone deep at least 20 times. He joined Ted Williams (16), Dwight Evans (11), Jim Rice (11), Manny Ramirez (8) and Carl Yastrzemski (8) as the only Sox players to hit 20 homers in seven different seasons.
The fact that Ortiz is once again driving the ball to all fields suggests that he is staying back and reacting well to the ball, rather than jumping forward and becoming pull happy. Right now, he is enjoying a run that is as good as any he’s experienced this year, going deep five times in the last eight games. The Sox are 18-2 in games when he has homered.
SOX RELIEVERS WONDER: WHY WAGNER?
The middle of August is far different than the days leading up to the July 31 deadline for trades not requiring waivers. At the end of last month, Red Sox players could not help but hear about potential deals that their club was contemplating. Three weeks later, that is not the case.
And so, prior to Saturday’s game, a few members of the bullpen expressed surprise to learn that the Red Sox had claimed Mets reliever Billy Wagner on waivers.
In itself, of course, the waiver claim doesn’t necessarily mean anything. By Tuesday at 1 p.m., the Mets can decide whether to grant the claim and relinquish Wagner to the Sox, whether they might work out a trade for Wagner with the Sox, or whether they will pull the left-hander back off of waivers and keep him.
Even so, Sox relievers seemed a bit confused by the possibility that Wagner might join them.
“What has he done?” wondered Jonathan Papelbon. “Has he pitched this year?”
Indeed, on Thursday, Wagner made his first appearance since undergoing Tommy John surgery last September. The former Mets closer looked great, topping out at 96 mph while striking out two of the three batters he faced in a perfect inning.
Wagner’s resume, of course, is that of one of the best closers ever. He has 385 career saves, a 2.40 ERA, and has struck out 11.7 batters per nine innings in his career.
Even so, what he might be able to deliver going forward remains something of an open question given the fact that he is returning from a surgery that often requires some months before consistency returns.
“Is he ready to pitch or is he not? You know what I mean?” asked Papelbon. “I think our bullpen is good where we’re at right now. Don’t get me wrong. But I guess you could always make it better. It’s kind of like the [Eric] Gagne thing, I guess.”
Ah, the Gagne thing. In 2007, the Sox had the best bullpen ERA in the majors thanks to the dominant work of Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen (among others). But the Sox worried about the toll of the season on Okajima especially (the Japanese lefty, in his rookie year, had to be shut down for a stretch due to fatigue), and so the Sox traded for Eric Gagne at the July 31 deadline.
At the time, in his return from Tommy John surgery in 2005, he was 2-0 with a 2.16 ERA and 16 saves. Gagne came with tremendous credentials, a former Cy Young winner who converted a record 84 straight save opportunities earlier in his career with Los Angeles. Yet stripped of the title of Rangers closer and made a set-up man for Papelbon in Boston, he fell on his face. Gagne had a 6.75 ERA in 20 appearances for the Sox, and was never effective.
His arrival was unsettling for Gagne and, to a degree, the rest of the Sox bullpen in ‘07. Some of the members of the current bullpen seemed leery that a move for Wagner -- which would allow for more load-sharing over the late innings of games and would also provide an insurance policy in case Papelbon falters -- might have a similar effect now, on a bullpen that ranks third in the A.L. with a 3.67 ERA.
“We loved Gagne coming over here, just the stuff that he had, but it was an awkward situation this late in the season,” said Delcarmen. “I think our bullpen is fine right now.
“It is what it is. If (Wagner) comes and helps us win, that’s what we want. But sometimes, shaking things up this late might work out different. We’ll see what happens.”