It may not be the best way to measure Kason Gabbard’s progress with the Red Sox - last night’s 4-0, three-hit, complete-game win over the Kansas City Royals is a better barometer - but it’s the funniest.
Gabbard was the guy, you may recall, that Terry Francona encountered in a Fort Myers eatery in spring training a year ago, belatedly determined that he was a player, and sent over a beer and a apology when he figured out who he was.
“When he first came up,” Francona said yesterday, “he didn’t say two words. That’s not necessarily bad. Now that he’s been around a little bit, you at least get a hello out of him and a smile.”
A quiet guy, or just shy in his current environment?
“When he retires,” Francona said, “I don’t think he’s going to start doing the Johnny Carson show, but it looks to me like he’s comfortable in his skin.”
The Sox clubhouse was a stress-free comfort zone for all parties last night after three home runs and rookie Gabbard’s mistake-free pitching - he went to only one three-ball count all night, on his only walk of the game - made fast work of the Royals, who tend to be taken lightly but last August knocked the Sox akimbo with a three-game sweep in Kansas City before the Yankees finished them off in the better-remembered, five-game massacre.
Gabbard allowed just three hits - singles by Emil Brown in the fifth and seventh and by pinch hitter Reggie Sanders in the eighth - in pitching the third complete game of the season by a Sox pitcher, earning him a standing ovation from a crowd of 37,099 sent home in a tidy 2 hours 18 minutes. The others were by Daisuke Matsuzaka and Curt Schilling, whose place Gabbard has done more than just keep warm in the Sox rotation.
Schilling was the major newsmaker before the game, the Sox announcing after he threw two simulated innings that he’ll go out on a rehab start Saturday in Pawtucket, with another five days later for the PawSox in Toledo. But he was (happily) upstaged last night by Gabbard, who said he’ll worry about the future when it gets here. “My next start is Saturday,” he said. “I’ll prepare for that. I’ll do what they tell me to do. I’m not going to worry about it.”
Last night, he preferred to savor the first complete game of his professional life.
“The only one I think I threw was in high school,” said the 25-year-old lefthander, who grew up near Palm Beach, Fla., and was a draft-and-follow sign by the Sox out of Indian River Community College in Florida.
Gabbard was supported by solo home runs in the fourth inning by Dustin Pedroia (No. 4) and Manny Ramirez (No. 13), and a two-run home run by David Ortiz (after a Pedroia single), his 16th, in the sixth. It was the fourth time this season that Ramirez and Ortiz have homered in the same game, but the first time in the Fens.
Pedroia, who was given a day off Sunday, also made the night’s biggest defensive play, charging Tony Pena Jr.’s bases-loaded chopper over the mound, and throwing out the swift son of the former Sox catcher by an eyelash to end the fifth. The Royals, who did not have a hit until Brown grounded a single through the right side with one out in the fifth, had loaded the bases when Gabbard walked the next batter, Esteban German, then hit John Buck in the ribs with a 1-and-2 pitch with two out.
In his first outing as Schilling’s replacement, June 26 in Seattle, Gabbard had attempted to field a similar chopper, by Ichiro Suzuki, only to have the ball tick off his glove. “I wasn’t going to let that happen again,” Gabbard said, “I knew that Petey [Pedroia] and Julio [Lugo] were pretty quick at getting to those balls, so whatever happened, that was it.”
Gabbard became the first Sox rookie to throw a nine-inning shutout since Paul Quantrill July 4, 1993 at Seattle. He is the first Sox rookie since Roger Clemens July 26, 1984, to throw a nine-inning shutout at Fenway, and the first lefty rookie to spin a shutout at Fenway since Roger Moret Sept. 24, 1971.
Not bad for a kid who had three arthroscopic surgeries on his left elbow four years ago, doctors moving the ulnar nerve.
“I think you have to remember this is a kid who faced a lot of roadblocks coming up through the minor leagues,” Francona said when asked why Gabbard did not arrive with the same fanfare as other Sox prospects before him.
Gabbard said the surgeries cost him some velocity on his fastball, but may have helped him focus on making his off-speed pitches - changeups to righthanded hitters, curveballs to lefties - even more effective. The swings and misses last night came with regularity, as he outdueled Royals rookie Brian Bannister, named the AL’s Rookie Pitcher of the Month in June, beating out Daisuke Matsuzaka among others, by going 5-1 with a 2.75 ERA in six starts.
Bannister was cruising until Pedroia’s fly ball landed in the Monster Seats to give the Sox a 1-0 lead. Two batters later, Ramirez, who has driven in eight runs in five games since the break, drove a ball over the Wall in left-center. In the sixth, Ortiz launched a full-count fastball into the seats near the Pesky Pole to account for the rest of the scoring.
Gabbard, who wound up throwing 107 pitches, said he knew he’d get a chance to go the distance when no one came over to talk to him in the eighth. Maybe they just didn’t think he was the type to have a conversation.
“I’m playing in my seventh year,” he said when told that Francona said he didn’t see Ed McMahon in his future. “You’ve got to give respect to the guys who have put their time in. I joke around. In Triple A, I was a loudmouth.”
From Gabbard, that’s probably a relative term. But this much is certain: Francona won’t have any trouble recognizing him in the future.