June 2009

Francona defends Buchholz

Red Sox manager Terry Francona is surprised that recent comments by Clay Buchholz in an interview with NECN were perceived as negative.

In short, Buchholz said that he can’t pitch any better than he has been, and he would rather be doing it at the Major League level, be it with the Red Sox or another team. He mentioned that he spoke with his agent about it.

“There was one line in there, out of a really mature interview,” Francona said. “If you go down and ask 25 guys in Pawtucket, which one of them do you think is going to say, ‘I don’t want to go to the big leagues?’ I mean seriously, who do you think would do that? Whoever says that, we don’t want him.

“The kid is pitching his [butt] off. That’s part of what we tell these guys in Spring Training. ‘Do your job, if you can really help us, you’ll help us. It might not be on your timetable.’ That’s just the way the game is.

“I think Buck is maturing rapidly, and handling a situation that maybe he wouldn’t have been able to in the past. But I actually watched that interview, and I thought there was one throwaway line in there that is getting a lot of attention, over a pretty mature kid.”

Is Buchholz stuck in the Minors?
“I don’t know that he’s stuck. We could always have him pitch here. I think, as an organization, we try to do what we think is right, for the organization, for the player. And if it doesn’t always land on the player’s calendar, on the exact date they want, I don’t think we’re always going to apologize for that. I think communicating with these guys is the right thing to do.”

On Buchholz’s overall progress:

“I think he’s doing a great job, I really do. I’m tickled to death, the way he’s pitching.”

Buchholz will piggyback John Smoltz tomorrow in a game that should be a great treat for Pawtucket fans. Buchholz is 4-0 with a 1.75 ERA in 11 starts for Pawtucket this year. Opponents are hitting .167 against him.

Smoltz will debut for Sox on June 25

Following one last Minor League rehab start on Wednesday for Pawtucket, John Smoltz will pitch for the Red Sox for the first time on June 25 at Washington D.C.

Rotation should align by Tuesday

The intrigue continues with the starting rotation, as manager Terry Francona said the Red Sox would get through Sunday’s game and then utilize Monday’s off-day to determine exactly how to get John Smoltz into the mix.

Smoltz said on Saturday one more abbreviated turn in the Minor Leagues was not out of the question. But Francona is clearly keeping all options open.

“We talked to Smoltzy last night,” Francona said. “We just want to get through the off-day and then we’ll … I think we can lay out the whole week. We just want to get through the off-day. Part of it is, we just don’t know how we’re going to get through today. We’ve got Wake again out in the bullpen as a reserve. We don’t want to use him, but we just want to protect ourselves. Until we get through it without using him, there’s no sense saying it and then undoing it.

“We’ll get through today and we’ll kind of map it out. We have mapped out various possibilities. There’s no sense in [doing it ahead of time], especially when it’s going to require a roster move. Those things come at their own pace.”

Wakefield, assuming the Red Sox don’t need him Sunday, will start Tuesday. Brad Penny is lined up for Wednesday, with Jon Lester likely on Thursday. That brings us to Friday, Daisuke Matsuzaka’s next scheduled turn.

Could it be time for Dice-K to take a little break to work out what ails him? Matsuzaka hasn’t gone as many as six innings in any of his seven starts. The overall numbers show a 7.50 ERA and an astounding 51 hits allowed in 31 innings by Matsuzaka. Opponents are hitting .372 against him.

“We’ve been pretty honest in our evaluations of him,” said Francona. “Like when people ask me, ‘What do you think of Dice-K?’ and I’d say ‘well he walked the bases loaded but got himself out of it. We’re not real comfortable with the first part of it but we’re happy with the second part.'”

“You try to get him to pound the zone and a couple of times that he really has, he’s left the ball in the middle,” Francona said. “We’re kind of trying to walk the line of being aggressive and getting him out of his game. There’s constant dialogue back and forth so we can get this as good as we can. It’s still a work in progress. It’s sometimes hard to figure. He can go out there for an inning and look unhittable and go out and it’s inconsistent, I guess is the word. He gave up some hard-hit balls yesterday in the third and fourth inning. Then he can turn around another inning and hits his spots and throws that changeup. I’ll tell you one thing, the cutter has power. It didn’t earlier in the year. He’s starting to get some power behind that cutter, which will really help.”

For those who wonder if Matsuzaka is having health problems, the righty emphatically stated Saturday night that is not the case.

“I feel fine,” Matsuzaka said. “I don’t have any problems with my shoulder or elbow and I think that makes it all the more irritating for me right now and I’d say that’s where my stress is coming from right now, even though I feel good.”

Sunday subs

Not your average Red Sox lineup out there today.

No Pedroia, no Ortiz, no Varitek and no Drew.

It’s just a day off for Pedroia, who has four hits in his last 38 at-bats. Varitek caught 13 innings Friday and a long night last night, so he gets a rest today. With an off-day Monday and Wake pitching Tuesday, ‘Tek actually will have three days off in a row. J.D. Drew got smoked in the right shoulder by a pitch Saturday, so he’s sore. Rocco only played half the game, so he’s fine to go to today. And Ortiz is simply a product of National League rules and a lefty on the mound.

Here is the lineup.

Lugo SS
Ellsbury CF
Youkilis 1B
Bay LF
Lowell 3B
Baldelli RF
Green 2B
Kottaras C
Beckett P

Wake could provide relief

With the bullpen getting taxed in Friday’s 13-inning win, veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield volunteered for relief duty on Saturday.

It is Wakefield’s normal side day, and even if he pitches, it wouldn’t affect his next scheduled turn in the rotation, which is Tuesday night against the Marlins.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona is hoping he won’t have to use Wakefield, but was glad to have the option.

“Wake is going to be available and hopefully it’s just one of those [situations] where we can use the guys we want to, and use them correctly, knowing he’s behind them,” said Francona. “If something happened early, that would be a situation [to use Wakefield] also. He’s aware of it. That helps us a lot. Wakey is pitching on Tuesday. We got pretty deep last night.”

Wakefield last pitched in the bullpen in Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS, pitching three scoreless innings to earn the win in a 14-inning epic. Of course, that performance was most remembered for Jason Varitek having three passed balls in that top of the 13th inning, but somehow clutching strike three as the Red Sox got out of it unscathed.

In other news, shortstop Julio Lugo, who had a key pinch-hit on Friday, was in the starting lineup for the first time in eight days.

“He hasn’t played in a while and I don’t know that’s in anybody’s best interest, even maybe [Nick Green],” Francona said. “Giving him a day helps everybody.”

Ian Browne

Smoltz in holding pattern

John Smoltz is Major League ready. Now the Red Sox just need to find a rotation spot for him. The future Hall of Famer expects to pitch Thursday — but he doesn’t know if it will be for the Red Sox or one more outing for Pawtucket.

He couldn’t be any more on board with the program and is actually excited to be on a team so deep that it’s this hard to figure out where he fits in.

“We’re going to leave those options open for the next week and see what happens,” said Smoltz. “There’s a lot of off-days. And I’m tickled to death to be at this point vs. struggling, having to figure out when I was going to return.”

More later.

Bard saves Ramirez, Sox

Terry Francona and assistant general manager Jed Hoyer were holding court in the visiting manager’s office during the afternoon hours on Friday when the topic of flame-throwing rookie reliever Daniel Bard came up. Particularly, they talked about Bard’s usage.

Francona, ever mindful of not giving Bard too much too soon as was the case with Cla Meredith in 2005, had mainly been pitching the righty in situations where the Red Sox were losing by a couple of runs or up by a bunch.

“Jed Hoyer and I were talking today,” Francona said. “We’ve tried to bring him along. I said, ‘one of these days we’re going to get in an extra inning game and we’re going to have to put him in and we’re going to be glad.’ I didn’t know it would be tonight.”

That’s just the way baseball works. It was tonight. Jonathan Papelbon was unavailable. Ramon Ramirez gave up a game-tying homer to Ryan Howard with one out in the ninth. Francona really did not want to use Manny Delcarmen. Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima and Takashi Saito had already been called on. So when the Red Sox had to pinch-hit for Saito in the top of the 13th, Bard started warming up.

By the time it was time for Bard to get on the mound, the Red Sox had taken a 5-2 lead. It was still  a save situation, but at least one that provided some margin for error.

Bard opened the inning with a walk, but then struck out the next two. After belting Raul Ibanez on the hand with a pitch, he settled down and struck out Shane Victorino on a nasty breaking pitch to end the game. The kid with upper 90s to triple digit heat now has a Major League save to his credit.

“A lot of adrenaline, but I’ve closed games before – not at this level or that caliber of hitters,” said Bard. “You could see it with the fastballs I was leaving up. That’s just a little bit of extra adrenaline. Fortunately I was able to get enough of them down and throw the breaking ball for strikes when I needed to. That was enough to get me through.”

Bard credited closing out a 7-0 win against the Yankees on Tuesday night as a good ramp-up to Friday’s performance.

“I kind of got a taste of it a little bit the other night, the 7-0 game,” Bard said. “It was the Yankees, I came in with the lead in the ninth. That was kind of a taste of it and it prepared me a little bit for tonight.”

In Bard’s first 10 Major League outings, he has an 0.75 ERA, striking out 13 over 12 innings.

“I’ve learned a lot,” said Bard. “I’ve just learned you have to pitch down in the zone with all your pitches. I think I’ve done that a lot more consistently the last three or four outings.”

“He’s got a great arm,” said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. “Just a matter of him getting more pitches under his belt. His stuff is definitely really good.”

Ian Browne

Leftovers from a wild night at Fenway

Wow, was there ever a lot going on at Fenway last night! It was hard to include it all in the game coverage, so here are some leftovers.

Takashi Saito has pitched in a lot of non-pressure situations this season, not as a reflection of him, but because of how dominant the rest of the bullpen has been. Saito’s inning and a third of shutout relief wound up being crucial on Thursday, given Boston’s comeback win. It was Saito’s 100th career win when you combine his work in Japanese pro baseball, and his first with the Red Sox.

“There are many pitchers out there with better numbers than I have, but to put it very simply I am very happy today, more than anything I’m happy that I was able to get my first win as a member of the Red Sox,” said Saito.

As for Saito’s former teammate with the Dodgers and current teammate Brad Penny, he was stunningly electric last night. I would say Penny’s shoulder has come all the way back from the right shoulder woes of a year ago. His fastball was exploding into the upper 90s, as he fired six shutout innings against the Yankees.

“I would say my mechanics are getting a little better,” Penny said. “I’m staying behind the ball and driving off my back foot.”

Then there is Big Papi. The big man with the big swing and the even bigger slump is finally getting hot. He crushed that homer against Sabathia, staying on the ball perfectly and belting it like the Papi of Old instead of an Old Papi.

“When I hit the ball oppo like that, it’s a sign that I’m waiting for the ball good. I’m trying to stay through the ball. I’ve been feeling a lot better at the plate,” Ortiz said.

“That was a good swing,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “He’s getting better and better every day and that’s a huge sign for us.”

Then there is Nick Green, who has started the last five games and turned Julio Lugo invisible. The play he made in the ninth might have been a game-saver.

“Not too many shortstops make that play,” said Red Sox manager Terry Francona.

Papelbon actually told Green the play won them the game, though a lot of others think it was Pedroia’s 10-pitch walk.

Either way, the Red Sox seem to be rounding into form at just the right time, heading into a weekend series with the defending World Series champions.

“It’s not just that we’re getting momentum by winning games,” Papelbon said. “I think we’re gaining  momentum with our players .David is starting to feel it, Josh is starting to feel it, our bullpen is starting to feel it. We just have to stay on this wave and ride it out.”

Big Papi getting his groove back

We finally have more than a very isolated example to think that maybe, just maybe, David Ortiz is finally morphing back into David Ortiz.

Two nights after belting a prodigious homer into the center field seats, Papi just launched a Monster Mash against CC Sabathia. It wasn’t one of those lazy flyballs either. Ortiz crushed it.

And yes, he got his fourth curtain call in as many homers this season. A new tradition has been built here at Fenway.

By the way, Penny’s velocity appears to be the best it’s been all season. What an intriguing situation to see what happens once Smoltz is activated. Oh, by the way, Smoltz got rained out tonight. He’ll be back at it in Syracuse tomorrow.

A reminder to find me on Twitter @IanMBrowne

Catch you later.

Pap was, uh, ill on Tuesday night

While NESN had some good-natured zooming in on what appeared to be a sleeping Jonathan Papelbon in the Boston bullpen on Tuesday night, Red Sox manager Terry Francona admits now that the closer probably should have been under the covers.

The righty got food poisoning from Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek’s charity event on Monday night.

As it turns out, there was a minimal chance Papelbon would have pitched even if a save situation had presented itself.

“We really wanted to stay away from Pap,” Francona said. “I don’t know if before the game, we needed to announce that. But he had gotten food poisoning at Wake and Tek’s thing – to the point where he was really scuffling. He’s a good kid. He tries to be available. There was no way I wanted to [use him]. He was going to have a tough time. We actually did that two years ago against the Yankees [when Papelbon had a migraine] and we ended up bringing him in in the eighth, let alone [with a migraine], and it backfired. The fact that he wanted to be available, we appreciated. I don’t know if he would have pitched. And he’s OK today.”

“The poor guy, I felt bad for him. He had a tough night. To the point where I think [Dr.} Larry Ronan almost took him to the hospital. He was so dehydrated. He’s such a good kid that he’s out there trying to do what he should have done. Maybe I should have said something before the game, but I don’t know if that helps us win.”

Papelbon appeared to be fine today. For what it’s worth, former Red Sox closer Lee Smith was known for taking a nap in the clubhouse during every game.