ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Sure, some fairly noteworthy things happened at Tropicana Field Wednesday night.
- The Red Sox lost, 8-5, to the Tampa Bay Rays (recap) thanks in large part to Evan Longoria’s three-run homer on Manny Delcarmen’s first pitch of the night, in the eighth inning. (It was only the second homer surrendered by Delcarmen all season, with the other one also coming at Tropicana Field.)
- After falling behind 5-1 after three innings, the Red Sox tied the game up, completing the comeback thanks to J.P. Howell's bases-loaded wild pitch in the eighth. (The inning was full of managerial maneuvering by Sox skipper Terry Francona.)
- The Rays are now 20-10 against the Red Sox in their last 30 meetings, and have won 15 of the last 18 vs. the Sox at Tropicana Field. (Once again, there were patrons being tasered at the Trop, just as there were a few times when the teams met last season, but this time there was also a bomb scare.)
- And if you really were digging for something to care about, Jacoby Ellsbury not only took the American League lead in stolen bases, but tied WEEI.com’s Lou Merloni’s record for most consecutive games played by an opposing player at Tropicana Field without drawing a walk (17).
Perhaps more significantly, Red Sox starter Josh Beckett appeared to be heading down the right road after his fourth straight uneven performance, even though he took little solace in the fact, noting, “A lot of it is based on results, and we lost today.”
Bottom line: On Sept. 3 the Red Sox find themselves 2½ games ahead of Texas, and five games in front of Tampa Bay, in the race for the American League Wild Card.
Another bottom line: The Red Sox starting pitching needs to be solidified, starting with Beckett.
So, with that in mind, here are Five Things We Learned: Red Sox Starting Pitching Edition…
BECKETT KNOWS THIS: THE RED SOX LOST
Here are the post-game comments from the Wednesday night’s Red Sox starter:
“The big inning was the second inning. I thought I made some adjustments after that.”
“I just wasn’t locating my pitches.”
“We lost so there wasn’t a whole lot of positives to come out of that.”
“We lost. I just have to look at the damage there in the second inning. Base hit after base hit just isn’t going to do it.”
What he was responding to was an outing that reeked of his previous three – a solo homer by Carl Crawford in the first inning, another in the second from Pat Burrell, and a total of five runs after three innings – but did end with some optimism.
Four of Beckett’s final nine outs came on strikeouts, giving him nine for the night. He didn’t walk a single batter one game after walking a season-high five. And, as he pointed out, the two-seam fastball that had helped carry the righty to a 12-2 run with a 2.17 ERA over 18 starts was back, allowing just one hit, a single.
Yet the Red Sox lost so those first few innings can’t be ignored. That’s why when some look back at this outing, the 24 earned runs over the last 24 1/3 innings will jump out.
But not the Red Sox. They can’t. They need Beckett too much.
“The last three, four innings, he started pitching,” noted Francona. “He got into the flow of the game and started allowing his pitches to move. The first couple, three innings, were more of what we’ve seen the last four outings, kind of throwing through the movement, elevating the ball. When he made a mistake, he paid for it. To his credit, we were looking at a long night. Then he reeled it back in and pitched, which was very encouraging.”
“He had one or two bad innings, and that one inning got away from him. Other than that it seemed he kind of found his stuff after that,” observed outfielder Jason Bay. “He wasn’t leaving those pitches over the middle of the plate like he had been, and I think that’s a positive for both him and us going forward is that he really finished on a good note.”
LESTER WILL BE OK
Jon Lester, the other portion of the pitching staff on whom the Red Sox are desperately hoping to hang their hats, isn’t worried.
The lefty was taken out after giving up two runs over six innings Tuesday night as a precautionary measure that stemmed from what was being described as a groin injury. Wednesday night, after the Red Sox’ loss, Lester clarified the ailment, saying the pain was more in his right hip.
He did say, however, that after throwing Wednesday, the injury doesn’t figure to hamper his preparation for his next start on Sunday in Chicago, although Lester doesn’t expect it to “magically disappear.”
“This time of year you just have to deal with some aches and pains,” he said.
It was a line of thinking that remained true to his thoughts after the Tuesday start.
“I feel like it’s August, or September now,” he said. “Last year everything was eye-opening. Everything was made out to be bigger than it was because I had never been through it before. This year I’ve learned to take the bumps and bruises of this long season, learned how to pitch when you're not 100 percent. I’m better prepared this year than I was last year, but that being said it’s still a lot of innings and it’s a long season.”
WAKEFIELD ISN’T SO CERTAIN
A perfect scenario for Tim Wakefield would be to throw a side session Thursday afternoon, coming away feeling ready to go for a start against the White Sox on Saturday. But what could happen, as he pointed out to the Providence Journal, is that he might walk off the bullpen mound at Tropicana Field and head straight into the reality that surgery on the bone fragment in his back is coming sooner than later.
Whatever the scenario, the one thing Wakefield knows is that his recovery has become a race against the clock.
"It's a matter of testing it out," said Wakefield, who played catch from 120 feet at Tropicana Field, Wednesday. "It's time to push the envelope. We're running out of time. Push it as hard as I can go and see what happens.”
For the time being, Junichi Tazawa, who warmed up in the Red Sox bullpen during Beckett’s early-game struggles Wednesday, is slated to pitch in Chicago Saturday.
BUCHHOLZ OFFERS HOPE
There is optimism on the Red Sox’ side of things that Clay Buchholz will be able to push his team’s lead over the Rays to six games, and it isn’t only because the hurler is coming off an outing in which he left the game after 8 1/3 innings without having allowed a single run.
There is also the way that Buchholz is managing his success that allows for some excitement.
The starter has developed a two-seam fastball that has meant a world of difference in both keeping his pitch-count to a minimum, while inducing a plethora of easy-to-field ground balls. In August, nobody on the Red Sox’ staff threw more grounders (61, compared to 33 fly balls), not even Jon Lester. And no starter during that stretch could match Buchholz’ pitch efficiency, having averaged a staff-best 15.9 pitches per inning and 3.66 pitches per batter faced.
“I’ve never had so many one or two or three pitch at-bats that turn into outs,” Buchholz explained. “It’s helped me out a lot. Strikeouts have gone down a little bit, but I’ll take a two-pitch out over a five-pitch strikeout.”
Buchholz said he had always thrown the two-seamer, but it had little effectiveness. That was until he started focusing on it in spring training this year. And then came the realization that the answer to why the pitch hadn’t popped in the minors might actually be in the difference in the ball used at the different levels.
“I guess it’s just it’s because I’m throwing a lot more two-seamers,” he said of his ability to throw grounders. “I’ve found a two-seam grip that every time I need to throw on the inner half to a right-handed hitter it has that late diving action, it has worked well for me. It worked in spring training for me and then I got to Pawtucket and I came to the conclusion that it was the different kind of balls I was throwing because I wasn’t doing anything different but the two-seamer in Triple A just stayed straight. I think it has something to do with how tight the laces are wound.”
A PENNY FOR YOUR… NEVERMIND
Brad Penny’s line in his first outing for the San Francisco Giants: 8 innings, no runs, five hits, 102 pitches, an average of 12.8 pitches per inning.
Penny with the Red Sox: An average of 18.1 pitches per inning, with just one start that lasted as many as 6 2/3 frames.
And then there was this quote from the starter regarding his Giants’ batterymate, Eli Whiteside, after Penny’s victory against Philadelphia, Wednesday night: “There's not a guy who's called a better game for me in my career.”