While Martin Prado was gently laying his bat to the side, undoing the straps on his leg guard, and taking the free base that Red Sox starter Allen Webster gave him on just five pitches, catcher Christian Vazquez turned to plate umpire Ted Barrett, asked for time, and jogged to the mound.
It was just the third inning in Saturday’s game against the Yankees at Fenway Park and Webster was working with a 3-0 cushion, but Prado was the second leadoff batter that Webster had walked and Webster was having trouble keeping his pitches from dancing outside the strike zone.
Vazquez dropped the ball in Webster’s gloved, walked with him back to the mound. He kept the talk simple.
“Calm down, stay behind the ball, and just relax,” Vazquez said. “Pitch by pitch.”
Then he went back to his post behind the plate with Francsico Cervelli stepping into the box.
The first pitch Webster fired was a 91-mile-per-hour fastball that was about to come seams-to-face with Cervelli. In self-preservation, Cervelli spun backward, tossed his bat, and fell to the dirt.
Webster’s pitches seemed to have a mind of their own.
“It was clear that he lost command of the strike zone,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “And while there’s plenty of stuff in terms of fastball action, swing and miss to his changeup, just the ability to make the adjustment from either pitch to pitch or hitter to hitter was elusive.”
He ended up walking Cervelli and then Brett Gardner to put himself in a bases-loaded jam, and Derek Jeter made him pay with a two-run double on a blooper down the right-field line.
“It was almost a little bit of a slow death there,” said Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves.
By the time the inning was over, Webster ended up with five walks, allowed two hits, and was tagged for four runs, giving back the lead his offense built for him and giving the Yankees a huge inning that fueled their 6-4 win.
“I felt really good and in control of the game my first two innings then really struggled with my release point in the third and never got back to finding it,” Webster said.
Only 39 of his 71 pitches found the strike zone and he started off 12 of the 22 batters he faced with balls, but what was more puzzling was how erratic his fastball was. He could only get it over for strikes 24 of the 50 times he threw it.
“It was just my fastball,” Webster said. “If I could have found my release point on my fastball I could have gotten my other pitches to work.”
One of the byproducts of dealing away four-fifths of the rotation that pushed the Red Sox to a World Series a year ago is giving young prospects the opportunity to mature and prove themselves at the major league level.
After Anthony Ranaudo went six innings and gave up just two runs in his major league debut Friday night, Webster lasted just 2⅔ innings, taking the loss as the Red Sox fell for the ninth time in their past 11 games.
What Farrell said he was looking for out of the emerging arms is consistency and the ability to make adjustments.
“It’s a matter of executing and making a pitch in key moments,” Farrell said. “In addition to that, showing the ability to adjust more readily based on the need at this level rather than where they’ve been at Triple A. So the requirements are just more consistent execution.”
Behind a two-run homer from Mike Napoli and an RBI single from Vazquez in the second inning, the Sox offense gave Webster early runs to work with, but command issues cost him.
“That was tough,” Webster said. “I should have been more aggressive and stayed that way.”
With the Sox going to the bullpen early, the Yankees tagged the relievers for insurance runs. In the fifth inning, Mark Teixeira mashed a leadoff homer off Craig Breslow on a 2-and-1 fastball. Two innings later, Stephen Drew shot an RBI double to right to give the Yankees a three-run lead.
Outside of the three-run second inning, the Sox’ offense spun its wheels, going 1 for 6 with runners in scoring position and leaving seven on base.
The Sox got a golden opportunity in the seventh after Brock Holt worked a one-out walk and Pedroia followed with a single to make it first-and-third with one out for David Ortiz.
Ortiz shot a fly ball to left field to score Holt (Ortiz’s 15th RBI in the last 11 games) and move Pedroia to second, but Yoenis Cespedes, who singled in his first at-bat, couldn’t come through in the two-out situation, launching a tall popup to the middle of the infield that third baseman Chase Headley camped under to end the threat.
“I think we got off to a pretty good start, swung the bat well,” Farrell said. “And after the three-run inning, unfortunately the four-run top of the third took some of the momentum away and then from that point on, their bullpen shut us down.”
Cutting walks down had been a priority for Webster while he was in Triple A Pawtucket, but in two starts with the Sox in the past week Webster has walked 11 of the 38 batters he’s faced.
“It’s definitely weird,” Webster said. “I think I let it speed up a little bit. Just didn’t stay behind the ball, didn’t stay with my mechanics.”
The major league level, Farrell said, is obviously a different challenge.
“There’s a drastic difference between here and Triple A,” Farrell said. “Whether it’s the consistency of strike zone, the quality of the hitter, the stage in which you’re performing on. All those things come in to factor into this.”
Neither Farrell nor Nieves could deny the sheer nastiness of Webster’s pitches — “When it was over the plate, a lot of ground balls, a lot of weak contact,” Nieves said — it’s a matter of harnessing it.
“Things unraveled a little bit on him,” Nieves said. “There’s always the challenge for him on becoming more consistent in the strike zone. That’s the ultimate plan.”