Boston Red Sox

First pitch: Valentine proven to be expert evaluator

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First pitch: Valentine proven to be expert evaluator

Less than three months into his first season as manager of the Red Sox, Bobby Valentine has hardly been what many expected.

Known as something of a baseball provocateur, with a penchant for engaging in public -- and not always complimentary -- comments about his players, Valentine has been strangely muted. It's the opinion of many that when Valentine saw the harsh reaction to his tweak of Kevin Youkilis just 10 days into the season, he retreated from his habit of sending messages through the media.

Thought to be a superb in-game manager, Valentine has instead made some strategic moves that have had both players and club officials scratching their heads. Two weeks ago, to cite on curious decision, he sent Clay Buchholz back out for the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles with the game well in hand -- the Sox led 7-0 -- and his starter's pitch count already over 100 pitches.

(It was not lost on those around the club that Buchholz recently passed on a request to pitch Sunday night in place of Josh Beckett on what would have been Buchholz's regular day to throw, citing a need for additional between-start rest. Valentine discussed Buchholz' decision on Saturday.)

But if Valentine has been something less than advertised when it comes to pushing the buttons of players or outwitting the opposition from the dugout, he's proved to still be a top-notch talent evaluator.

In spring training, Valentine argued that reliever-turned-starter Daniel Bard was better suited to pitch out of the bullpen. Bard's massive struggles in adapting to the demands of the rotation proved Valentine's instincts correct.

More recently, Valentine campaigned for reliever Franklin Morales to get some work as a starter. Working toward that goal, he had stretched out the lefty's innings load in two recent relief appearances, prepping
him for a spot start.

When the opportunity came Sunday night in the road trip finale, Morales flourished, reflecting well on the manager's faith in him and validating his judgement.

Morales hadn't started in the big leagues over the last three years, but Valentine saw something that would translate. And indeed, Morales was brilliant, striking out nine while walking none over five innings, during which he allowed just two runs on four hits.

Clearly, a five-inning outing against the worst team in baseball guarantees little for Morales, beyond a second start when Beckett's turn comes around again Saturday.

What's more, Valentine seemed unable -- or at least unwilling -- to articulate exactly what he saw in Morales that made the manager believe he'd be a worthy starter.

Right, however, is right.

That's not to suggest that Valentine has been infallible when it comes to evaluating. Mike Aviles, whom Valentine judged to be a less-than-appealing option at short during spring training, has played far better than the manager expected.

But even the best talent evaluators stumble at times and when players exceed expectations, there's little damage done.

Valentine's on-target assessment of how to best utilize his roster -- exemplified not only by his evaluation of Bard and Morales, but his ability to fashion a working bullpen alignment after closer Andrew Bailey went down late in spring training -- is telling and suggests that he deserves a bigger role in such future decisions.

How should Red Sox handle Chris Sale's pursuit of Pedro Martinez's strikeout record?

How should Red Sox handle Chris Sale's pursuit of Pedro Martinez's strikeout record?

BALTIMORE — Baseball records are so precise. When to pursue them, when to value them even if minor risk is involved, is not nearly as clear cut.

The Red Sox, Chris Sale and John Farrell have stumbled upon that grey area, and it will continue to play out in the final two weeks of the regular season.

Sale reached a tremendous milestone on Wednesday night, becoming the 14th different pitcher in major league history to reach 300 strikeouts in a single season. No one else has done it in the American League this century. Clayton Kershaw was the last to get there in the National League two years ago.

“It was really fun,” Sale said of having his family on hand. “My wife, both my boys are here, my mother-in-law. Being able to run out and get a big hug from him and my wife and everybody — it was special having them here for something like this. … I’ll spend a little time with them before we head to Cincinnati.”

Now, there’s another mark ahead of Sale: Pedro Martinez’s single-season club record of 313. And the pursuit of that record is going to highlight the discussion of what matters even more.

The tug-of-war between absolute pragmatism and personal achievement was on display Wednesday, when Farrell gave ground to the latter. 

The manager was prepared for the questions after a celebratory 9-0 win over the Orioles. His pitchers threw 26 straight scoreless innings to finish off a three-game sweep of the Orioles, and the Sox had the game well in hand the whole night.

With seven innings and 99 pitches thrown and 299 strikeouts in the books, Sale went back out for the eighth inning.

If you watched it, if you saw Sale drop a 2-2 front-door slider to a hapless Ryan Flaherty for the final strikeout Sale needed and his last pitch of the night, you surely enjoyed it. Records may not be championships, but they have their own appeal in sports that’s undeniable. 

But Sale could have recorded strikeout No. 300 next time out. Surely, he would have. He needed all 111 pitches to do so Wednesday.

In this case, the difference between 299 and 300 wound up being just 12 pitches. 

It’s doubtful those 12 pitches will ruin Sale’s postseason chances, particularly considering he was throwing hard all game, touching 99 mph. 

Nonetheless, the Sox hope to play for another month, and they've been working to get Sale extra rest. So, why risk fatigue, or worse, injury?

“The two overriding factors for me,” Farrell explained, “were the pitch counts and the innings in which he was in control of throughout. Gets an extra day [for five days of rest] this next time through the rotation. All those things were brought into play in the thinking of bringing him back out.

“We know what the final out of tonight represented, him getting the 300 strikeouts. Was aware of that, and you know what, felt like he was in complete command of this game and the ability to go out and give that opportunity, he recorded it.”

If Sale makes his final two starts of the year, he’ll break Martinez's record of 313. At least, Sale should. But he might not make his projected final start, in Game No. 162, so that he’s set up for Game 1 in the Division Series.

(So, if he could do reach 314 Ks in his next start, he’d make this discussion disappear — but 14 Ks in one outing is not easy.)

When should exceptions be made to let someone get to a record? Where do you draw the line? 

Would it be reasonable to get Sale an inning or two against the Astros in Game 162 if he was a few strikeouts away, even though he may face the Astros in the Division Series?

Letting the Astros get extra looks against Sale is a different matter than Sale throwing 12 extra pitches. But neither is really a guarantee of doom. They're small risks, of varying size.

Consider that if Sale is on, he should rough up the Astros no matter what.

What's 12 pitches Wednesday for a guy who leads the majors in average pitches thrown per game? Not enough to keep Farrell from letting Sale have a go at one milestone.

Will the Sox work to put Sale in position for the next?

Records don’t usually fall into such a grey area. Outside of the steroid era, anyway.

Sale gets strikeout No. 300 as Red Sox shut out O's, 9-0

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Sale gets strikeout No. 300 as Red Sox shut out O's, 9-0

BALTIMORE - Chris Sale struck out 13 to become the first AL pitcher in 18 years to reach the 300 mark, and the Boston Red Sox moved to the brink of clinching a playoff berth by beating the Baltimore Orioles 9-0 on Wednesday night.

Sale (17-7) reached the milestone on his last pitch, a called third strike against Ryan Flaherty to end the eighth inning. The last AL pitcher to fan 300 batters in a season was Boston's Pedro Martinez in 1999, when he set a club record with 313.

Mookie Betts and Deven Marrero homered for the Red Sox, who reduced their magic number for reaching the postseason to one. If the Angels lost to Cleveland later Wednesday night, Boston would be assured no worse than a wild-card spot in the AL playoffs.

The Red Sox, of course, would prefer to enter as AL East champions. They hold a three-game lead over the second-place Yankees with 10 games left.

After winning two straight 11-inning games over the skidding Orioles, Boston jumped to a 6-0 lead in the fifth and coasted to its 11th win in 14 games.