Rebirth of rotation revives Red Sox's mystique
Boston is back as Lester, Buchholz re-emerge with guidance from Farrell, Nieves
CLEVELAND -- Curt Schilling was entering what would turn out to be the last of his 20 seasons in the big leagues when John Farrell joined the Red Sox as the pitching coach in 2007. By that point, the man who brought us the bloody sock and other outstanding postseason exploits wasn't looking for some reinvention of his mechanics or sophisticated evaluation of his stuff.
The way Schilling put it to Farrell that spring was that he just wanted "direction."
Farrell remembers that conversation. And he still draws from it.
"I think we, as people, want direction," Farrell says, glove in hand, hours before another Red Sox win. "Our players want that direction. And when they feel that there is good reason as to why we're going to take a certain approach, they gain confidence from that."
Farrell's club is awfully confident these days. The Red Sox are 10-4, perched atop the American League East in these early days of the season, providing an upbeat note as the people of Boston endure these difficult days. While there is plenty of time for the pitfalls of a 162-game schedule to reveal themselves, the Red Sox's mystique that eroded in the September 2011 collapse and the wayward days of the short-lived Bobby Valentine era seems to have returned.
It returned in step with the return of Farrell, to be the manager after his two unsatisfying years north of the border, and the arrival of pitching coach Juan Nieves. While much has deservedly been made of Boston's improved clubhouse culture (the fact that 22 members of the club gathered for dinner here Monday night speaks to the quality of the camaraderie), the fundamental difference between the Red Sox of '12 and the Red Sox of '13 rests atop the rotation, where Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have summoned their inner aces.
They are quick to credit their coaches.
"Having John and Juan has helped a lot of us focus on the little things," Lester says. "It sounds simple and easy, but pounding the strike zone, keeping the ball down and attacking hitters. It sounds like you learned that in Little League, but you get away from that sometimes with the monotony of the season. Juan and John and the coaching staff have simplified our outlook and our game plans. Now it's our job to execute that."
They're executing it, all right. Last year, they combined for a 20-22 record and a 4.70 ERA. This year they are 5-0 with a 0.88 ERA. He's made only three starts, but Buchholz has lowered his WHIP from 1.326 to 0.955 while improving his strikeouts per nine from 6.1 to 9.4. He says he's merely following the lead of Lester, who enters Thursday's start against the Indians with a 0.947 WHIP and 8.5 strikeouts per nine.
"He's the same guy, the same Jon Lester I've watched for the last six years," Buchholz says. "But it looks like he's going out there with a purpose. He's determined right now."
It was easy to make beer and fried chicken jokes at the end of 2011 and easier still to snicker at the dysfunction of the Valentine dynamic. But the Red Sox lost their way when their starting pitching fell apart. And the re-emergence of Lester's dominant downhill plane and Buchholz's trust in his body (after the back woes that plagued him in '11 and affected his preparation for '12) and his stuff has put them back on a winning path.
"They've gotten back to who they are," Farrell says. "It's not like we've added a pitch or they've all of a sudden gained five mph on their fastballs. They've been very good pitchers in their own right, and it's just been about getting them back to their career norms. There's no magic potion."
Nor is there any guarantee that Boston's strong start will hold up in the wildly unpredictable AL East.
But unlike the 2011 and '12 clubs, this one stands to benefit from April, rather than spending all summer trying to recover from it.
"It's definitely better to not be swimming upstream," says assistant general manager Mike Hazen. "It's not like you can breathe easy, but getting off to a good start is important. The last couple years, we haven't. And when that happens, it taxes you mentally as a team."
Lester and Buchholz don't feel mentally taxed by the burden of fronting the rotation, because they are confident in those who follow. Ryan Dempster has made a solid transition to his new digs, and Felix Doubront probably has the best raw stuff of any pitcher on the staff. Alas, John Lackey's comeback bid has already been slowed by biceps tendinitis, so April has not been without its requisite bumps. But Farrell and his staff don't let their players take the field without a well-considered and constructed plan of attack, and it has paid early dividends as the starters have not allowed more than three runs in any of their first 14 games, the team's longest such streak to begin a season.
"All the pieces of the puzzle are here," Buchholz says.
General manager Ben Cherington and Hazen took some interesting steps in assembling those pieces, placing a heavy emphasis on personality and passion in their free-agent pursuits of Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, David Ross and Jonny Gomes. And the Red Sox have, indeed, been productive at the plate, even with David Ortiz on the mend.
For the Red Sox, though, the most encouraging aspect of an undoubtedly encouraging April has been the re-establishment of a respectable rotation. Farrell and Co. have the starters pointed in the right direction.