The Red Sox have more important things to do than field accusations about whether one of their pitchers doctors the ball, but that’s part of their reality nowadays. You wonder if the topic has caused a distraction on the staff because since it came up in Toronto last weekend, the Sox rotation has shown some warts.
Since Clay Buchholz’s start in Toronto on May 1, when he was accused of doctoring the ball by two Blue Jays’ broadcasters (Dirk Hayhurst and Jack Morris), Sox starters had gone 1-4 with a 6.88 ERA in seven games. Wednesday night’s performance was even worse: Starter Allen Webster allowed eight runs in just 1⅓ innings in a 15-8 loss.
Couple that distraction with the team’s two closers — Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan — going on the disabled list a day apart and the residual effect has been starting pitchers going fewer innings, therefore exposing Boston’s middle relief.
Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa are now the set-up man and closer, where they used to be middle relievers. Andrew Miller, Craig Breslow, Clay Mortensen, and Alex Wilson are in those innings once occupied by Uehara and Tazawa.
Whether all the speculation around Buchholz caused the pitcher to have his poorest outing of the season Monday night against the Twins (four runs in six innings) isn’t known, but we can speculate it may have been in his head.
The latest revelation came from a story by Jeff Passan at Yahoo! Sports. Passan quoted a National League pitcher saying that a majority of pitchers in baseball use sunscreen to get a better grip on the ball and that Red Sox pitchers use the sunscreen to create the same sticky effect of pine tar.
One American League GM said he has heard of pitchers using the sunscreen to not only get a better grip on the ball but to replace pine tar, which is illegal and can be seen easier because of its brown color.
But a Red Sox source, who acknowledged that he’s heard of pitchers using sunscreen, also indicated that “ironically, Buchholz does not.”
Said Buchholz after Wednesday’s game, “I haven’t used that all year. I’ve used it in the past when I need to use sunscreen on a sunny day on the mound. Is there anything wrong with that?”
Asked if he were a little tired of the accusations, he said, “It’s getting old and I’m not going to talk about it anymore. I’m sick of talking about it. I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m doing things within the rules of the game.”
When told Major League Baseball has not come down on him at all for any violaton, he said, “That’s all that matters. It means I’m doing things the right way. I’m not breaking any rules.”
The Red Sox have bigger fish to fry than answering questions about doctoring baseballs, but the topic has definitely created a negative effect among Sox pitchers. As pointed out in my notes column last Sunday, younger pitchers simply don’t cheat like the older generation did.
The reason is because current pitchers already have great movement with their sliders, cutters, and changeups. What they’re looking for is a better grip on the ball.
Many pitchers use small amounts of pine tar and rosin. And some may use sunscreen.
“I don’t know of our pitchers using sunscreen,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “Seemingly the comments that came out of our series in Toronto suggested some form of cheating. And yet, Clay uses rosin, which I think every pitcher who walks a mound, and certainly a major league mound, will use. But the fact is that Clay has not used any foreign substance. We’ll take those accusations as a compliment to a guy that’s really pitched well.”
The Red Sox are definitely entering their first bump in the road with their pitching. Entering Wednesday night, Sox starters have a 4.82 ERA since Jon Lester’s first shaky outing on April 24.
Felix Doubront, for instance, was sent to the bullpen and scratched from his scheduled start Wednesday, making room for Webster to make his second major league start. Both had disastrous outings.
Pitching coach Juan Nieves has been working with Doubront to be more consistent in the strike zone, economize his pitches and trust his extraordinary stuff. In three of his five starts, Doubront did not extend past five innings.
Thursday’s starter, John Lackey, continues to work his way back from a strained biceps after missing a season with Tommy John surgery. He only went five innings last weekend vs. the Rangers.
Farrell hopes he can continue to build Lackey’s innings up to the point where he can go deep into games.
“We’re hopeful he can continue to work deeper into games,” Farrell said. “We’re getting deep enough into the season where starters should be getting into the seventh and eighth innings with a little bit more regularity. So there’s two ways to bridge that gap to the closer and that’s making sure that we do get the complement of innings out of our rotation and guys [in the bullpen] are going to get opportunity.”
Lester, who entered the season as the ace and is 4-1 and was the talk of the town in April, hasn’t been able to get past six innings in his last three starts.
The one consistent performer has been Ryan Dempster.
Nobody ever thought the Sox rotation would be lights out all season after an amazing April. But when the back end of the bullpen starts to become imperfect because of injuries, the starters must pick up the load. The death knell for any major league team is when you have to expose your middle relief too often. If starters can go deep and get to the set-up man and closer, then the chance of something going terribly wrong is reduced.
It may be purely coincidental that their pitching has gone south since the accusations against Buchholz, but the evidence — the numbers — is strong in support of a staff that’s under a spotlight they’d rather not be in at present.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.