The Boston Red Sox Jon Lester pitched seven shutout innings last night to beat Jake Peavy and the Chicago White Sox 1-0. With just five hits and one walk allowed and seven strikeouts, it was Lester’s best game so far and a welcome reminder of why he still belongs in the top tier of major league pitching. Perhaps more importantly though, when Lester was done for the night, Franklin Morales and Vicente Padilla pitched an uneventful eighth inning and Alfredo Aceves was perfect in the ninth, racking up his third save of the week.
After the dreadful week of baseball ended last Sunday with a rainout canceling the final game of the home series against the New York Yankees, Red Sox pitching was in shambles. The staff had allowed 46 runs and 12 home runs in five games. Lester had a dreadful start against the Texas Rangers, lasting just two innings, and Clay Buchholz’s struggles continued to haunt the starting rotation. When Boston did get a solid start, like the one Josh Beckett gave them against the Rangers or the gem that Felix Doubront turned in against the Yankees, the bullpen couldn’t seem to give the game away fast enough.
One week later, a great deal has changed. Lester’s dominate performance last night may signal that his usual early season rust is nearly gone and he is once again ready to compete for the Cy Young Award the way that he did in 2010. Doubront and Daniel Bard are both improving with every start and could easily be the best fourth and fifth starter duo in the league before long. After his miserable first start, Beckett has been the one constant in the rotation; routinely giving the Sox seven innings or more and keeping them in the game. Among Boston’s starters, only Buchholz has yet to show any ability to take over a game. Whether it is his modified delivery or just the effects of having missed so much playing time, Buchholz is not the pitcher Boston expects him to be. However, four of the starting five appear to be locked in and that is a big turnaround from the first weeks of the season.
Far and away though, the biggest difference is the bullpen. It is literally a different group. Lefty Justin Thomas, who won the team’s final roster spot out of camp, has been sent down to AAA and in his place the Red Sox now have Rich Hill in the pen for LOOGY work. The difference between these two pitchers is, quite honestly, enormous. Hill was once a very promising starter who has seen injuries derail his career. He has struck out 8.18 per nine in his career while walking 4.00. Thomas has never been able to stick in the big league in any capacity despite being a lefty with a low 90’s fastball. The reason is simple, with a career 4.57 K/9 and 3.74 BB/9 he has little to offer. Considering that he is actually less effective against lefties than righties, it is hard to imagine why Bobby Valentine ever used him outside of mop up duties.
Also gone from the pen is righty setup man Mark Melancon. Melancon had been dreadful over the first two weeks of the season, allowing 5 home runs and posting 49.50 ERA after facing just 18 batters. Melancon cost the Red Sox a fair amount in trade and the team is counting on him fixing his mechanical issues, but for now he will be doing that at AAA. In his place, the Red Sox can now turn to Junichi Tazawa. The Japanese righty is just back from Tommy John surgery and the early results are very promising. Tazawa has allowed just three hits in his six innings with the Red Sox without allowing a run or issuing a walk. Once a top starting pitching prospect, Tazawa now appears to be on his way to a career as a late-inning reliever.
The biggest change may be Aceves, however. After blowing the save in the final game against the Yankees on April 21, Aceves has turned his season around. In that dismal performance the new Red Sox closer walked four and allowed five runs to score on just two hits. Since then, he has allowed just one walk and two hits and held opposing teams scoreless in three straight saves. His velocity has been creeping up all season long and now sits at 95-96 mph regularly and hits 98 mph at times. He has been locating the ball low in the zone more consistently and it is paying off. After getting just four ground balls against his first 20 batter’s faced through that Yankees game, he has gotten ten grounders from the last 13 hitters. With Ace now looking like a viable closer, it is possible the Red Sox can finally end the cries for Bard to return to the bullpen.
While one week is not nearly enough time to declare the issues with the Red Sox pitching completely vanquished, the staff is now moving in the right direction and fans can be cautiously optimistic. Should Melancon and Andrew Bailey return and be effective once again, the team’s biggest weakness could be a strength by season’s end.