McAdam: Sox starters looking for relief

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McAdam: Sox starters looking for relief

By SeanMcAdam
CSNNE.com

Bobby Jenks is set to return from the disabled list Tuesday, and if the prospect of a veteran reliever with a 9.35 ERA riding to the rescue doesn't seem like a significant development, think again.

Jenks hasn't pitched since May 1 due to a bout with biceps tendinitis, and in his absence, some interesting things took place with the Red Sox pitching staff.

Monday night, for example, for the third time this season and second since Jenks was shelved, manager Terry Francona allowed his starting pitcher -- in this case, Jon Lester -- to throw 125 or more pitches in a start.

That's a departure from Francona's usual approach.

Over the last few years, the only times the manager has allowed a pitcher to go that deep were when Lester and Clay Buchholz were finishing off no-hitters.

Now, in the span of just over a month, he's allowed it to happen three times.

As Francona pointed out Monday, part of his motivation was the fact that thanks to two upcoming off-days in the Red Sox' schedule -- Thursday and again Monday -- and the return of John Lackey to the rotation, Lester will be pitching next on seven days' rest, or, three more than usual.

Certainly, that influenced his decision to let Lester try to finish the sixth inning, even as his pitch count climbed to his highest total since his 2008 no-hitter against Kansas City. Francona knew that Lester would have plenty of time to rebound from Monday's outing.

But it's also true that the makeup of the bullpen was also a factor.

Without Jenks, much of the late-inning workload in the last month has fallen directly on Daniel Bard -- with mixed results. Despite an impressive WHIP of 0.974 and almost a strikeout per inning (25 in 25 23 innings), Bard's ERA is abnormally high at 3.54 and he's been charged with four losses.

Still, despite a half-dozen poor outings, Bard is still far more trustworthy than anyone else in the back end of the Boston bullpen not named Jonathan Papelbon.

Recall the May 21st game in which the Red Sox led 3-1 after seven innings against the Chicago Cubs. Francona didn't want to use Bard that night because of his recent workload and attempted to get to Papelbon in the ninth by deploying Matt Albers in the eighth.

Big mistake. Albers -- with some help from some sloppy defense behind him -- was charged with eight runs in a game that got away from the Sox.

Albers had been perfectly fine in middle-inning work, but just as some relievers find it a big jump to go from the eighth to closing responsibilities, others find that moving from middle relief to so-called "high leverage'' innings can be equally as daunting.

That's not a criticism of Albers. He's been very effective at a reasonable cost and stands as one of the better acquisitions of the off-season.

But in terms of stuff and experience, he's not Bard. And for that matter, he's not Jenks, a former closer, either.

Without Jenks to team with Bard, Francona has been pushing his starters, hoping to get them through seven -- when Bard can be asked to start a clean eighth -- or eight -- when he can avoid using Bard altogether.

Francona steadfastly refuses to burn out Bard, as evidenced by his reliance on Albers two weeks ago. But he hasn't been above pushing and extending his starters every great once in a while, especially when there is some built-in protection (read: bounce-back time) on the other end.

And tellingly, he has made every effort to scale back the pitch count on the Big Three of Lester, Buchholz and Josh Beckett in the outings immediately following.

After getting 125 pitches out of Beckett in Anaheim on April 21, for instance, he scaled back to just 92 pitched five days later in Baltimore.

Likewise, with Buchholz, who threw a 127 against Detroit on May 18, but threw just 94 in his follow-up outing.

It's uncertain, of course, how much the Sox are going to get out of Jenks and whether he can help Francona and pitching coach Curt Young spread the burden of late-inning, high-leverage situations. If Jenks pitches as he did in the first few weeks -- with scoreless appearances in five of his first six games -- the ganbit will be successful and both the starters and Bard himself will see their workload lessened at least somewhat.

The ability to use Jenks and Bard in some close games could be a huge advantage, allowing the duo to combine for six, seven or even eight outs as a bridge to Papelbon.

If, on the other hand, Jenks can't be counted upon, there will likely be fallout all over. Francona may again be forced to, periodically, push his starters deeper and GM Theo Epstein may have to accelerate his search for bullpen upgrades.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

Porcello following Belichick’s lead, moving 'on to 2017'

Porcello following Belichick’s lead, moving 'on to 2017'

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. -- Flashback to January 2016, it’s the first night of Red Sox Winter Weekend, where fans welcome Rick Porcello with a vanilla reception -- no different than that of any one of the coaches. The right-hander is coming off a disappointing 2015, where he’d been given a four-year extension before throwing a regular season pitch and didn’t exactly perform to the level he’d hoped.

Now flash foward to Friday night, same event, just a year later. Porcello is introduced at the Town Hall event at Foxwoods to kick off the weekend and receives a welcome truly rivaled only by the AL MVP runner-up, Mookie Betts.

“You know, they were both pretty similar,” Porcello joked with reporters when comparing his 2016 reception to Friday’s.

Makes sense. Winning a Cy Young Award can change public perception.

But after his dominant 22-4 regular season, Porcello -- along with the rest of the starting rotation -- couldn’t deliver in the postseason. While he was visibly upset during and after his lone 2016 postseason start, Porcello is taking the Bill Belichick approach and says he's moving on from the outing -- and his memorable regular season, too.

“Just like any other start, you’ve gotta find ways to get over that stuff,” Porcello said. “It doesn’t feel good to go out there and not win Game 1, but I’m on to 2017 now -- and really everything that’s happened in 2016 is behind me. The season that I had, the postseason I had and we’re on to this year and what we can accomplish this year.”

“Moving on” from struggling times and great successes tends to bode well for athletes and players in this town. Maybe that’s what made all the difference for Porcello in making the jump from 2015 to 2016.

Are Red Sox entering spring training with fewer questions than ever?

Are Red Sox entering spring training with fewer questions than ever?

BOSTON -- Every year it seems like there are major issues or question marks to start spring training where the answers are up in the air.

In 2015, the Red Sox lacked an ace, had Hanley Ramirez moving to left field and Pablo Sandoval coming to town.

In 2016, Ramirez was moving back to the infield, but at a new position, and his bat was in question. Sandoval was coming off a year where he couldn’t hit his weight (he hit .245 and he last weighed in at 255 pounds). How would the starting rotation look after David Price?

This year, there seem to be three questions, but in a way, they’ve already been answered.

How will the Red Sox make up for David Ortiz’s absence?

Well, for one, the Red Sox have three Cy Young-caliber starting pitchers (Price, Chris Sale and Rick Porcello) in their rotation.

And two, Hanley Ramirez is coming off a career year with his highest career output in RBI (111) and second-highest home run total (30). And while Mitch Moreland isn’t the greatest hitter, he’s good for 20 or more home runs. Plus, it seems he’s holding a spot for a certain Red Sox prospect who’s bouncing back well from an injury.

 

Will Sandoval earn the starting third base job back?

The weight loss is a good sign, not only for the physical reasons, but it shows he’s mentally committed to being better.

However, that doesn’t guarantee he gets his job back.

“I’m not going to say [third base] resolved itself,” John Farrell told CSNNE.com, “but you know Panda’s done a very good job of committing to get himself in better shape and we’re looking forward to seeing that play to in spring training.”

Even if Panda can’t put it all together, Farrell told reporters before Thursday’s BBWAA dinner, both Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge would be competing for the job as well.

Holt as plan B -- in the infield? Who wouldn’t take that?

Who’s going to start at catcher?

Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart each have their pros an cons.

Leon did it all last year, but went from hitting .383 in his first 39 games to .242 in his last 39.

Vazquez has Ivan Rodriguez-esque abilities behind the plate, but couldn’t keep the staff under control last year and cannot hit.

Swihart, who turns 25 April 3, is the youngest of the three, has the most potential at the plate, but is far and away the worst of the three defensively at the most important defensive position -- excluding pitcher -- on the field.

They all have their drawbacks, but they’ve all shown at some point why they can be the Red Sox starting catcher in the present and future.

Everywhere else, the Red Sox seem to be in a comfortable position as pitchers and catchers reporting to camp draws ever nearer.

“I think the fact that we’ve got veteran players that have done a great job in staying healthy [and] young players that are getting more establishing in their return, we’re in a pretty good place in terms of the overall status of our position player group,” Farrell told CSNNE.com.

And it seems some players are confident in the team’s options as they ready for camp.

“We’re looking good in a lot of areas,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts told CSNNE.com. “Especially the pitching staff, [since] we just got Chris Sale one of the best in the game.”

“Pablo’s definitely going to bounce back, especially with the weight he’s lost."