Craig Breslow had one of the worst appearances of his career Wednesday night against the Cubs. He came into a lopsided game in the ninth inning and gave up three consecutive hits. That led to his being charged with four runs.
Yet, in a dynamic unique to the art of pitching, Breslow came away encouraged by his failures.
“I know how this sounds, but I felt good out there. Probably better than I have all season,” the reliever said Friday after the Red Sox had their game against the Orioles rained out.
The pitches were hit hard, but it was one of the rare times since the World Series that Breslow felt confident putting the ball over the plate and going after hitters.
“My velocity was discernibly up. My breaking staff was as sharp as it has been,” Breslow said. “That kind of stuff can beat guys.”
If it was indeed a breakthrough, it was needed. Breslow has a 5.40 earned run average and has put 54 runners on base in 28⅓ innings. That he has walked more (20) than he has struck out (19) is a sign of how bad this season has been for him.
Both Breslow and Sox manager John Farrell insist that health is not a reason for the lefthanded reliever’s downturn. But evidence suggests that something is wrong.
Breslow appeared in 61 games during the regular season in 2013 and 10 more in the postseason. He was one of the best relievers in the American League, posting a 1.81 ERA and 1.12 WHIP.
He then started this season on the disabled list with what was described as a shoulder strain and has not pitched well since returning.
“Whatever the consequences of pitching so much in a special season like that are, you have to be willing to wear,” Breslow said. “I wouldn’t do anything differently. This is as frustrating a stretch as I’ve had in my career but I feel confident I can get out of it.”
Breslow was activated from the disabled list April 9 but has rarely pitched in high-leverage situations. Of his 29 appearances, eight have come with the Red Sox leading.
“There’s no injury,” Farrell said. “[But] he’s pitched a lot over the last four or five years.”
At 33, Breslow has pitched nine seasons in the majors and appeared in nearly 700 career games, counting the minors. This season could simply be the result of all that pitching.
“I wasn’t able to ramp up as fast as I either should have been or needed to in order to be ready on Opening Day,” Breslow said. “I knew coming out spring training, velocity was down a little bit and it has taken a really long time to come back.”
The reduced role is not what he expected, especially after last season.
“Obviously everybody down in the bullpen wants to be the guy in the game in the eighth or ninth,” Breslow said. “I also know that it takes pitching well, pitching consistently to move your way there. It becomes a matter of execution.”
Velocity has been part of the problem. Breslow consistently threw his four-seam fastball close to 92 miles per hour last season, right through October.
That pitch has been 88-89 m.p.h. this season. His sinker and cutter also have dropped off. It left Breslow trying to get hitters out with pitches on the corners instead of trusting his stuff to play over the plate.
“It has probably been a result of thinking that my stuff is playing down and needing to make great pitches as opposed to being aggressive in the strike zone,” he said.
“I just told myself [on Wednesday] I was going to be aggressive and I was going to attack hitters. The results obviously could have been better. But I felt like my stuff was better and I was physically better. Over the longer haul this season, that mentality and that execution should play pretty well.
“Certainly I’m aware of how the first half has gone and I know I need to be a lot better.”
Breslow has been traded twice in his career and is in the final guaranteed year of his contract, although the Red Sox hold an option on 2015. If Wednesday proves to be a precursor to improvement, he would have value at the trade deadline.
An inexpensive lefthanded reliever with postseason experience could bring a decent prospect back in return. But Breslow has learned not to ponder such possibilities.
“It’s as weird as you make it,” he said. “I’ve made it through a trade deadline when I was heavily rumored to move. The deadline when I was traded from Arizona to [Boston], I didn’t expect to be traded because I was throwing the ball well and we were a couple of games out.
“It can absolutely be a distraction if you allow it to be. There are also guys who are able to objectify the situation and be cognizant of what’s happening around them and around the league while not allowing it to be a distraction. That’s pretty unique. For me, I’ve got enough on my plate trying to pitch better.”