Sitdowns and shakeups were almost inevitable. In five days, the Red Sox had been rocked for 44 runs. On the season, Sox starters had given up a league-high 79 runs and 115 hits. And the common thread was that innings had a way of spontaneously unraveling.
But when Red Sox manager John Farrell sat down with his pitching staff, it wasn’t for a pep talk. It was to game plan.
“The book is out on us as a staff and teams will attack that,” Farrell said. “We’ve got to counter that.”
Opponents stepped into the batter’s box knowing what to expect from the Sox. Farrell could sense it and he wanted to change it. He wanted to see his starters set the tone, use the whole strike zone, use both sides of the plate.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to do a more consistent job of throwing pitches to both sides of the plate rather than being as predictable as I think at times we’ve become,” Farrell said. “It’s basic fundamentals of pitching and yet we’ve got to execute more consistently.”
Too many hitters were seeing cozy counts. The plan Farrell preached was to attack hitters and take back the strike zone.
“We’ve just got to attack parts of the zone, under the hands, down and away,” he said. “The whole day. We can’t let guys get too comfortable.”
In the Sox’ 4-1 win Wednesday night at Fenway Park in the rubber game of their three-game series with the Blue Jays, it was on Rick Porcello to put the plan into action.
From the start of his seven innings of work, Porcello sprayed pitches around in as many places as possible. He threw hitters in holes quickly, with first-pitch strikes to 11 of the 26 batters he faced, and made at-bats feel like impossible guessing games.
After giving up a walk to Devon Travis to start the game, he struck out the side on 11 pitches.
Marking his territory was an early priority. The first pitch he threw to Jose Bautista, who came into the game 7 for 18 against him for his career, was a fastball that buzzed by Bautista’s hands and had him hopping out of the box. The rest of the at-bat had Bautista scratching his head.
Porcello came back with a knee-high curveball that Bautista had to restrain himself from swinging at, then an eye-level slider that went for a called strike and had Bautista rolling his eyes at plate umpire Adrian Johnson.
In a 1-and-2 hole, all Bautista could do was take a lazy wave at the slider that Porcello left off the outside of the plate for him to chase.
“That was the game plan we talked about,” said Sox catcher Ryan Hanigan. “Pitching in more, pitching up more, getting in better counts. It’s nice when a plan comes together.”
In easily his most effective start of the season, Porcello gave up just one run on two hits. It was the kind of start that stabilizes a struggling pitching staff.
“As much as we talked about starters setting the tone, Rick did that tonight,” Farrell said. “He got a number of outs with his fastball. He made some hitters uncomfortable in the box, had a very good curveball, was in command. He dictated to the hitters what he hoped to do and the game plan flowed off of that.”
Porcello’s flooded the zone with fastballs (51 strikes on 69 pitches), and used his secondary pitches as brush strokes.
“I think we’re all going out there trying to pitch our game,” he said. “For me, I want to go out there, pitch deep into a game, and be consistent. You’ve got to take it one game at a time. Obviously we’ve had some struggles. Those are behind us now and we need to get better and we need to get better fast. Hopefully today was a step in the right direction and we can build some momentum off of it.”
The Jays cobbled together their only run off Porcello in the second inning when Kevin Pillar led off with a double then scored three batters later on a ground ball up the middle from Josh Thole, which center fielder Mookie Betts still managed to make a play on, gunning down Michael Saunders at third for his second assist of the season. Betts also made an outstanding over-the-shoulder catch on a ball hit by Travis in the third.
The Sox offense, which has constantly had to climb out of holes this season, had no problems snatching the lead, tagging Jays starter R.A. Dickey for three runs on four hits in the bottom of the third.
David Ortiz, who was hitting just .176 (3 for 17) with runners in scoring position entering the night, won a seven-pitch battle with Dickey, fouling off three straight knuckleballs before lining an RBI single to right to tie the game. Then Hanley Ramirez was able to cash in with two outs, blasting an 0-and-2 knuckler over the Green Monster for a two-run home run that put the Sox ahead, 3-1. It was his 10th homer of the season.
From Ryan Goins’s double-play ball in the second inning to Bautista’s fly out in the sixth, Porcello retired 14 straight batters, setting up the Sox’ fifth come-from-behind win of the season.
“We’ve got to attack, execute pitches, and that’s it,” Porcello said. “If we go out there and execute pitches, we’re going to be just fine, especially with the offense we have. That’s really it. We’ve just got to get some stability and pitch deep into games.”
Farrell called Porcello’s start a building block, but he didn’t want to jump the gun on the effect on the rest of the pitching staff.
“Ask me in another five or six days,” Farrell said.