KANSAS CITY, Mo. — From the standpoint of the Red Sox’ postseason plans, the most important outing of Tuesday night may not have been that of starter Paul Byrd.
Byrd, of course, had an interesting tale of two games in the Sox’ 5-1 loss to the Royals (recap). He got shelled for five runs in the first, then shut out the Royals for the next 5-2/3 innings.
But the starter’s up-and-down outing may ultimately prove to have been less significant than the one inning of relief turned in by right-hander Michael Bowden.
Bowden has made 103 starts and just three relief appearances during a minor league career in which he has consistently stifled opponents. But he is now being poked and prodded to see whether he can withstand bullpen duty for the Sox. In the Sox’ two straight losses to the Royals, he has given an indication that he can do just that.
Bowden tossed a scoreless eighth inning on Monday, requiring just 12 pitches to make it through a perfect frame. Pitching on back-to-back days for the first time in his pro baseball career on Tuesday, Bowden was even stronger, needing just 10 pitches to produce another 1-2-3 eighth inning that included a strikeout.
Bowden’s fastball ran from 92-94 mph. He proved capable of maintaining his stuff despite pitching on back-to-back days. Catcher Jason Varitek described the pitcher as “strong … powerful,” an assessment with which manager Terry Francona agreed.
“Bowden actually came out and threw the ball I thought better [Tuesday than Monday], which is great to see,” said Francona.
Because Bowden spent all year as a starter in the minors, he is stretched out to the point where he could pitch in long relief. But because his arm is resilient, he also is capable of pitching with the sort of regularity that other potential Sox swingmen — particularly Tim Wakefield, Paul Byrd and Daisuke Matsuzaka — cannot.
It may well be the case that Bowden doesn’t sniff the postseason roster. That said, the usage of the 2005 sandwich pick on Tuesday was intriguing.
Once Byrd recovered from his disastrous start, he navigated deep enough into the game that the Sox could turn to their normal relief corps, starting with Manny Delcarmen, who produced the last out of the seventh. But the team decided to go with Bowden to pitch on back-to-back days, even though Francona said before the game that using Bowden in that fashion was “not something we’re rushing to do.”
The 23-year-old handled that challenge, and in so doing, he showed that he possessed the sort of versatility that is absent in his fellow Sox pitchers. For his part, Bowden suggests that after taking up residence in the bullpen for more than two weeks, he has become far more comfortable with a relief role than he was at the time of his call-up.
“I feel like I know what I’m doing out there a lot better, what I need to do to get ready. Now, I think I’m past that point,” Bowden said. “I know how much I need to throw, when I need to warm up, so now it’s just a matter of bringing that to the game. I feel extremely comfortable being out there.
“It’s just kind of going out there and pitching now without the nervousness. I feel like I’ve been here for a while. It’s taken away the nerves.”
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how the Sox employ Bowden. If he continues to be called upon, and continues to succeed, then it would not be entirely out of the realm of possibility that he could make a claim to a postseason roster spot, potentially at the expense of Wakefield, Byrd or even Delcarmen. Even though Bowden was not called up until Sept. 5, the Sox — assuming that they make the playoffs — could add him to the postseason roster in place of Miguel Gonzalez, a Rule 5 draftee who has spent the entire year on the 60-day disabled list following Tommy John surgery. If the Sox go with 11 pitchers in a given playoff round, Bowden is showing glimpses of the sort of versatility that could establish him as an asset in October.
Here are four other things we learned on a night when the Red Sox’ magic number slipped to six thanks to the Rangers’ 8-1 loss to the A’s:
PAUL BYRD SHOWED THAT HE COULD MATCH UP WITH AN ACE … SORT OF
Paul Byrd seemed little short of amazed at what he had on the mound on Tuesday. As he warmed up in the bullpen, he sensed that he had “great stuff,” “a great fastball,” with “great” secondary offerings, including a slider that he deemed “phenomenal.”
And so, armed with all of those weapons, Byrd promptly laid an egg in the top of the first. He gave up five runs in the inning on four hits (all singles) and two walks. It was a start that the Red Sox could ill afford with Cy Young frontrunner Zack Greinke on the hill for the Royals. Byrd insisted that the discrepancy between how good he felt and how poor his results were would leave him unable to sleep following the game.
“Once I got going, I felt like I could get anybody out. It’s a shame that I didn’t get off to a better start. That changes the whole game,” Byrd said. “If I give up one or two runs, that changes the whole game. We don’t feel out of it. Greinke throws a lot of pitches like we made him do. We get him out of there and it’s a different type of game, a different type of feel. So that’s what was real frustrating for me — we’re out of the game by the first.”
Most frustrating for Byrd was his uncharacteristic lack of command. He ended up walking four batters, his most free passes since 2006, an almost shocking number for a pitcher whose 2-1/3 walks per nine innings ranks as the eighth-lowest total among active starters. At one point in the first, Byrd threw eight straight balls in walking Royals Billy Butler and Mike Jacobs consecutively.
But from there, the pitcher settled into a terrific groove. After he seemed in danger of getting knocked out in the first, he did not allow another run while pitching 6-2/3 innings. He adeptly carved the plate with a fastball, slider and change to unbalance the Royals after the first. In so doing, he helped to preserve the Sox bullpen rather than torching it. Even so, Byrd found little solace in that fact.
“I’m glad I came back and threw some innings and helped the bullpen out, but I’m not really here to eat innings. That’s not my job,” he said. “I’m here to get on the mound and give our team a chance to win. Tonight I didn’t do that and it’s a little frustrating.”
ONLY A CRIMINAL ACT WOULD DENY ZACK GREINKE THE CY YOUNG AWARD
Two pitches to Jacoby Ellsbury encapsulated the dominance of Zack Greinke on Tuesday. The Royals starter unleashed a 74 mph curveball down and away for a called strike, and then with his next pitch pounded Ellsbury’s hands with a 97 mph fastball that resulted in a soft fly to center for an out.
Greinke showed exceptional stuff combined with brilliance on the mound. He consistently unbalanced hitters by changing speeds on his two- and four-seam fastball, complementing that pitch with a nasty change to lefties, a too-slow-to-touch curve, and a slider that Sox manager Terry Francona described as perhaps the best in the American League.
For Greinke, the combination resulted in a routine night of dominance. The right-hander now has a 2.08 ERA on the year and has improved to 15-8 (along with eight no-decisions in which he has a 1.95 ERA).
He has made an astonishing 25 quality starts in his 31 outings this year. Of late, he has been otherworldly, allowing just one run in his last 35 innings spanning five starts, good for a 0.26 ERA.
If there is a more dominant pitcher in baseball this year, then opposing hitters would do well to head to the plate blindfolded and smoking a cigarette.
“He has Cy Young stuff,” said Sox outfielder Jason Bay. “No question.”
“He had everything,” added Francona. “Seeing it first-hand, that was impressive stuff.”
TIM WAKEFIELD HAS IMPACTED THE ROTATION
Though Tim Wakefield’s line on Monday — five innings and five runs — was his least impressive of his three second-half outings, it still carried value for the Sox. Amidst a stretch in which the Sox have 20 games in 20 days, Wakefield permitted the Sox to give their other starters an extra day of rest.
The potential payoff could come tonight, when Josh Beckett takes the hill. Beckett is 6-5 with a 4.73 ERA when pitching on four days of rest. He is 8-0 with a 2.23 mark when pitching with five days of rest.
Because Wakefield willed himself to take the mound on Monday, his teammates will have the extra day to marshal their strength. The Sox’ ability to slide Wakefield into the rotation, even if it is as a spot starter, impacts the pitching staff in a positive fashion during a time of the year when there is no rest for the weary.
“That’s what we’re trying to do,” Francona said. “We’re trying to not overdue him and also use it as an advantage for the other guys.”
Going forward, the Sox are hopeful that they will be able to use Wakefield again this year. While the pitcher will not slot into a regular rotation, the Sox will evaluate him in the coming days to determine when he might next take the mound.
“We’re going to kind of pick our spots with him. He’s aware of that,” Francona said. “He can’t go every five days. That’s not realistic. But I don’t think he’s walking around looking worse, which is good. We’ve been through this a ton. We’ll monitor him all week. We’ll see how he reacts. We’ll check our other pitchers. We’ll try to fit him in where it works best for everybody.”
DUSTIN PEDROIA IS LOCKED IN
Eight members of the Red Sox lineup could do little but flail at Zack Greinke’s offerings on Tuesday. But one batter seemed anything but overwhelmed by the dominating right-hander.
Dustin Pedroia had a terrific night at the plate, hitting the ball hard and working deep into hitter’s counts. In the top of the first, he laid off of pitches when Greinke was outside of the zone, and smashed a 3-1 fastball into right-center for a double (Pedroia’s 45th of the year). He would add a pair of walks and a well-struck flyout to right.
While Victor Martinez extended his career-best hitting streak to 21 games, Pedroia’s 14-game hitting streak has been at least as impressive. The second baseman is hitting .357 with a .419 OBP and .589 slugging mark during his current run.
With both Pedroia and Martinez amidst hot streaks in the second and third spots, respectively, in the lineup, the Sox have enjoyed plenty of scoring opportunities in recent weeks.
It simply took a pitcher like Greinke to prevent Boston from doing anything to capitalize on those chances. The Sox went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position on Tuesday.