TORONTO - Felix Doubront was a face in the crowd at spring training, one of eight pitchers competing for two spots in the Red Sox rotation. He had the advantage of coming up through the organization, but that was it.
“I knew I had to prove something to them and to myself,’’ said Doubront, a 24-year-old lefthander whose promise had been clouded by injuries and inconsistency. “But at least I had a chance to do that.’’
Two months later, Doubront is the best starter for a team on the rise.
Doubront pitched into the seventh inning Saturday as the Red Sox beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 7-4.
At 28-25, the Sox are out of last place in the American League East for the first time this season. They have won five of their last six games and 16 of the last 22.
The No. 4 starter has pitched like an ace. Doubront is 6-2 with a 3.75 earned run average. The Red Sox are 8-3 in the games he has started.
“You’re seeing a guy that’s just kind of growing up in front of us,’’ said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “He’s going to be an unbelievable pitcher for a long time.’’
Saltalamacchia is prone to hyperbole when it comes to his pitchers. But there is ample evidence to suggest Doubront is more than an average pitcher on a good streak.
He is averaging 9.53 strikeouts per nine innings, the third-best rate in the league. He struck out seven on Saturday over 6 1/3 innings and walked one.
He’s also improving. Doubront has a 2.72 ERA in his last six starts, going deeper into the games and cutting back on his walks.
“He’s only 24,’’ said fellow starter Daniel Bard. “He had a couple of rough years and some injuries. But he’s still at a place where he’s going to learn more and get more comfortable. I don’t think we’ve seen his best yet.’’
Manager Bobby Valentine, a Doubront proponent from the start of spring training, also believes that to be true.
“I think he has room for improvement,’’ Valentine said. “He’s going to learn more about this league and more about himself and continue to improve. He’s got a dynamite fastball.’’
Doubront allowed solo home runs by Jeff Mathis and Jose Bautista. Toronto’s other run against him came after Doubront fumbled a chopper hit back to the mound.
He was otherwise solid, retiring the final seven batters he faced before Valentine came to get him after 101 pitches.
“I made the adjustments against them,’’ said Doubront, who lasted five innings against the Jays in his first start of the season April 9. “I pitched OK in that game, but I was better this time. I didn’t let them get the pitches they wanted.
“I changed a few things up and I was more confident. I think in every game I learn more about the hitters.’’
Doubront was the first Latin American prospect signed by former general manager Theo Epstein to make the majors, and this is his eighth year in the organization. Those who have watched him develop suspected this level of success was possible.
“I don’t think anybody is surprised,’’ said Jon Lester, another homegrown starter. “But it’s another thing to go out there and do it. It’s good to have and good to see him get on a good roll early in the season. Now he can build the rest of the year.’’
As Doubront and four relievers held the Jays down, the Red Sox got six hits, three walks, four RBIs, and five runs from the bottom four players of their order: Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Sweeney, Will Middlebrooks, and Nick Punto.
Punto was a surprise contributor, the .132 hitter going 3 for 4 with an RBI double and a solo home run.
“He progressively has gotten his timing,’’ Valentine said. “He hit a couple of balls on the nose. His timing at the plate was great today and it was really needed.’’
Toronto starter Kyle Drabek (4-6) allowed three consecutive run-scoring hits with two outs in the second inning. Middlebrooks had a single, Punto a double, and Daniel Nava a two-run single on a ball center fielder Colby Rasmus misplayed.
Sweeney drove in a run with a bases-loaded ground out in the eighth inning. Punto belted a long home run in the ninth.
Bard will be on the mound Sunday as the Sox try to finish off a sweep.
“We’re having a lot of fun right now,’’ Doubront said. “It’s all about winning.’’
The Sox have six players on the disabled list who have been All-Stars and a seventh, Dustin Pedroia, who is out with an injured thumb. But they have overcome a 4-10 start with contributions across the roster.
“It’s a good group of guys,’’ Valentine said. “I said it before and it’s worth repeating: They don’t make excuses and they don’t play the game before they go out there. They just play it one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time.’’