EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 20, 2013

Time for the young pitchers to be thrown into fire

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — BOSTON — Drake Britton and Brandon Workman began this season pitching for Double-A Portland. Here in July though, they are being thrown right into the inferno that is the AL East playoff race with a Red Sox team that plays its next nine games against divisional opponents.

Archrivals Boston and New York squared off here at Fenway Park for the first time this season. But that wasn’t the big story last night. Neither was Boston’s 4-2 victory over a Yankees lineup reminiscent of a Triple-A order.

The big story was the growing deterioration of the Red Sox bullpen, which once looked so promising with Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey at the back end.

Say goodbye to Bailey. He’ll join Hanrahan and reliable southpaw Andrew Miller, who already are gone with season-ending injuries. The right-handed Bailey, who had a solid chance to regain the closer role from Koji Uehara as this second half progressed, has damage to the labrum and capsule in his shoulder. There is a definite possibility he will need season-ending surgery.

It is time for Workman and Britton to answer the bell. It is necessary for them to pitch in high-leverage situations here in the final two and a half months. They will be relied on. And this Boston bullpen must shape up or else the Red Sox won’t make the playoffs.

“We’re going to get a look at some young guys,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said.

New York Yankees shutdown setup man David Robertson was thrown into the fire in June 2008 as a 23-year-old rookie. In his major league debut, he pitched the sixth and seventh innings of a two-run game against the Mets on the road. So he certainly knows what some of the young Red Sox pitchers will experience.

“Those first few outings where you’re in high pressure, tight situations, your adrenaline is really high and you feel the pressure of the game on you,” Robertson said. “Some guys feed off of it. Some guys don’t. It’s just a matter of the person’s makeup. If you are put in the situation, it’s all about relying on what you can do and not trying to overdo anything.”

That is excellent advice for Workman and Britton who must pitch to their strengths.

It also is good advice for right-hander Rubby De La Rosa, a fireballer who will remain in Triple-A Pawtucket’s starting rotation for the time being. Farrell said the Red Sox want to keep him there. But De La Rosa is on the 40-man roster and so there is a good chance he could end up in Boston’s bullpen at some point in the next four weeks, especially if things continue to go south with the relief corps.

Workman, a righty, pitched six hitless innings in his first big league start vs. Oakland last Sunday, still is considered the fifth starter with Clay Buchholz (neck) on the DL. But he was available out of the pen yesterday and again is available today. The Red Sox’ intent when they promoted him last week was to see what he could do as a reliever.

Workman will be worked into important relief situations once Buchholz returns or if the Red Sox identify another fifth starter.

His strength is his mid-90s fastball and terrific control, which seemingly makes him a good fit for relief.

The Red Sox likely will use Britton more against lefties. He faced 89 left-handed batters when with Portland this season, holding them to a .187 batting average (compared to .281 vs. righties).

“I concentrated on being able to throw inside to (lefties) and I’ve been successful with it,” Britton said.

Robertson added: “You’ve got to calm yourself down and make quality pitches because at this level, if you make mistakes, big league hitters will make you pay for them really quickly. Against tough lineups, you have to pitch to your game and make the pitch when you need to.”

Justin Masterson, now a starter with Cleveland, was valuable out of the bullpen down the stretch for the Red Sox in 2008 as a rookie. The long-term plan was for Masterson to be a starter. But many times, pitchers establish themselves in the big leagues initially as relievers.

The Red Sox hope to catch lightening in a bottle with Britton and Workman like they did with Masterson in ‘08.

That said, southpaw reliever Craig Breslow might be the true X-factor in the ‘pen because of his equal effectiveness against hitters from both sides. Both lefties and righties have batted .228 against him in his career.

Breslow, therefore, will be used as a late-game setup man with Junichi Tazawa in the same fashion they were used last night when Tazawa had the seventh and Breslow pitched the eighth. Meanwhile, both Britton and newcomer Matt Thornton, a southpaw, will be more situational lefties.

Thornton has dominated lefties (.173 batting average against) but has struggled vs. righties (.327 average, .435 OBP).

If the Red Sox wanted to use Workman mainly out of the ‘pen, they have internal options for the fifth starter, including Steven Wright, De La Rosa and Allen Webster.

Losing Bailey also will intensify the Red Sox pursuit for both relief and starting pitching help externally. The Red Sox did sign Jose Contreras and Brandon Lyon to minor league contracts yesterday. Both have been sent to Pawtucket.

You’ve got to figure out who’s pitching what roles and some new guys are going to get a chance and we’ve got a lot of confidence in those guys,” Red Sox GM Ben Cherington. “At the same time we will continue to work the phones and see if there are ways to help the team from outside of the organization. Those things are hard to predict.

“It takes finding the right match and we’ve got a lot of good things going on this team and we’re still very confident in the guys here now.”

Follow Eagle-Tribune baseball reporter Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB