SEATTLE — When a team makes a minor trade, such as when the Red Sox dealt first baseman Lars Anderson to Cleveland for knuckleballer Steven Wright last July, it hopes that at some point it works out in some way.
Thursday was one of those times for the Red Sox.
Wright, 28, earned his first major league win by pitching 5⅔ innings of shutout relief after Ryan Dempster gave up seven runs to the Mariners in just 3⅓ innings. Koji Uehara closed out the 10-inning, 8-7 victory.
Really, it was Wright, not Uehara, who deserved the save. The Red Sox were in a back-and-forth game, tied at seven after five innings. Wright gave up an RBI single to his first batter — the run was charged to Dempster — that made it 7-4, Seattle, but he got out of a one-out, two-on jam.
The game could have gotten out of hand right then, yet Wright held strong. The Sox scored three runs in the top of the fifth to tie it.
“I think holding them there stopped their momentum a bit,” Wright said. “It was a different look and it seemed to disrupt them a little bit with their timing. Whatever it did, it held them down.
“I was able to throw strikes and put the ball in play and keep it in the ballpark. I felt I got into a good rhythm and routine. I felt I made some good pitches and tried to make adjustments on the knuckleball as I went along.”
Wright said he threw it between 77-80 miles per hour, a lot harder than how Tim Wakefield used to throw his. Wright throws his knuckleball more like R.A. Dickey, and Wakefield has talked to him about adjusting velocity.
Wright had been on a good run with Pawtucket — 17⅔ consecutive scoreless innings, including a nine-inning shutout vs. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre July 1 and seven shutout innings at Rochester July 6. Overall he was 4-5 with a 3.81 ERA in 16 starts.
This was Wright’s second big league appearance. He debuted April 23 in a 13-0, rain-shortened loss to Oakland at Fenway. He allowed five runs over 3⅔ innings.
“I think I knew that was a short-range situation and that I’d go back to Pawtucket,” he said. “When I went back I didn’t pitch very well. I was trying to find my release point and all of this was still relatively new to me. I was trying to figure things out, so I knew I wasn’t going to get back up here unless I showed I could pitch at a high level. That’s been happening lately. I have a better idea of what I’m doing out there, making better decisions, making better adjustments. It’s all about experience and I think the one I’ve had I’ve learned from.”
Uehara gave Wright the game ball and Wright is going to give it to his parents for safekeeping.
Ryan Lavarnway has caught Wright in Pawtucket and he caught Wright Thursday. He said Wright had one of his most consistent knuckleballs. Except for a wild pitch in the fourth, Lavarnway had little trouble catching his offerings.
According to Lavarnway, Wright is “the only pitcher in the league who brings his own glove from the bullpen.” When he comes into a game he hands the oversized mitt to the catcher.
Wright hasn’t come out of the bullpen too often, but that will evidently be his role while he’s up. He had been a candidate to start Sunday at Oakland and that could still be a possibility because it would be his day to throw a bullpen.
“We’ll see,” he said. “When I start and throw 110 pitches, I usually do my bullpen on the second day and I feel as though I could pitch.”
Wright, who was a conventional pitcher in the Indians farm system, said he usually needs 30-35 pitches to get loose in the bullpen when he starts. On Thursday he was up twice and threw about 10-15 pitches each time. He said he had enough warm-up tosses.
“There’s probably less transition for me because I throw that one pitch. It’s not like I have to scale down my repertoire or anything like that. So coming out of the pen or starting isn’t that much different for me,” Wright said.
John Farrell’s experience with Wakefield has certainly taught him how to approach knuckleball pitchers. He understands they’re different, but he also sees their value. Farrell thought the Mariners were a good matchup for Wright because they are a fastball-hitting team. Offspeed stuff gives their hitters problems and that was the case Thursday.
Wright threw 83 pitches, allowing just three hits and walking two. He also induced two double-play grounders that got him out of innings quickly.
When a starter goes fewer than four innings that usually means major stress for the manager and the bullpen. But Wright saved them. He probably could have finished the game, but that’s what closers are for, so Uehara got the ball.
“The way he was going and throwing up zeroes, there was no reason not to let him go out there inning after inning,” Farrell said. “It was a heck of a performance, one that frankly allowed our offense to come back and win this game.”
If you’re wondering about Lars Anderson, he has kept moving since being dealt for Wright. In December he was part of a three-team deal between the Indians, Reds, and Diamondbacks, ending up with Arizona. He was picked up on waivers by the White Sox, who also put him through waivers, where he was picked up by the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays then sold him back to the White Sox. Anderson is hitting .200 with two homers and 14 RBIs for the Charlotte Knights, the White Sox’ Triple A affiliate.
The Red Sox have already gotten the better end of the deal.