When Daisuke Matsuzaka landed on the disabled list, it was a near-certainty that Michael Bowden would get the call from Pawtucket to join the Red Sox bullpen. Bowden, after all, is the only healthy, big league-ready pitcher on the 40-man roster who is not currently in the majors. Had the Sox summoned any other pitcher, they would have had to risk losing a player whom they removed from the 40-man.
But it was more than just numbers that played in Bowden’s favor. The pitcher has been outstanding thus far this year in Pawtucket.
Bowden, a sandwich-round selection by the Sox in the 2005 draft, had been developed a starter throughout his career. But after pitching in the bullpen in Venezuela over the winter, he reported to spring training and, for the first time, prepared for a full year of life as a reliever. Down the stretch last year, the Sox had Bowden work out of the bullpen, and they found it to be a hand-in-glove fit.
“I think he’s a lot more comfortable being a reliever,” Pawtucket pitching coach Rich Sauveur said in spring training. “All he wants to do is throw. Every frigging day as a starter, next day, he’s out throwing; third day, he’s out throwing; fourth day, he’s out throwing. He throws the ball everyday.
“[When he was first switched to relief], we had a set program for him, then after a week and a half, we told him, ‘We’re not going to tell you when you’re going to pitch.’ He was coming to the ballpark thinking he was going to be in every game. He loved that.”
The early stages of the 2011 season have suggested as much. Bowden is off to a terrific start with the PawSox, having pitched to a 1.59 ERA in 22 2/3 innings (spanning 14 games), punching out 28 and walking just four.
Bowden, whom the Sox expect to activate prior to Wednesday’s game, suggested that he has embraced his new job description. He is attacking opposing hitters out of the chute, a fact demonstrated best, perhaps, by the fact that he has retired the first hitter he’s faced in 13 of his 14 outings.
“I’ve adapted to the bullpen role very well,” said Bowden. “I feel good, I’m confident out of the bullpen, I’m throwing the ball well … , [with] more confidence. A little more aggressive out there and I’m throwing more strikes, just going out there every day, being confident.”
With that increased confidence has come an improvement in stuff. Last year, Bowden’s performance as a starter was up-and-down, in part because his fastball velocity was inconsistent. This year, he has been living at 92-93 mph and down in the strike zone, while complementing that offering with a modified swing-and-miss secondary offering.
Once a fastball-curveball-changeup pitcher, Bowden is now working primarily with his fastball and a slider, with an occasional cutter worked in against left-handers. His results suggest that the revised formula is working.
“The power has been back – the fastball has been more consistently 92-93, which is something we haven’t seen for a year or so consistently. He’d flashed it, but it’s been outing to outing to outing now,” said Sox farm director Mike Hazen. And the slider that he came up with in winter ball, and then early into this year, has been really good.”
Bowden has absolutely dominated right-handed hitters, holding them to a 5-for-55 mark (.091) with one walk and 23 strikeouts. Lefties have fared better against him, going 10-for-27 (.370) with three walks. Those splits reflect on the fact that Bowden’s delivery makes it difficult for right-handers to pick up the ball as well as the action on his pitches.
“He’s probably going to be more of a right-handed dominant reliever. [The deception is] part of it,” said Hazen. “I also think being more of a two-pitch guy is lending to that a little bit. He’s going to have to learn to manipulate the slider to lefties and get to the cross-corner with his fastball to get inside against lefties. Those are the biggest areas of his development in attacking lefties as well as righties.”
Bowden’s dominance against righties certainly positioned him for a call-up. That said, he is not the only pitcher whose Triple-A performance would have merited big league consideration at a time when John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka are injured.
Felix Doubront struggled while briefly in the majors in April, at a time when he was still building his arm strength after elbow stiffness in February derailed his spring training. But since entering the Pawtucket rotation on April 22, the left-hander had been excellent, forging a 1.98 ERA while striking out 18 and walking just five in 13 2/3 innings that spanned four starts.
“His stuff, the command has come and gone on him. He’s worked some high pitch counts early. In the position he was in, he had to build up his workload because obviously he was on a very restricted workload at the very beginning,” said Hazen. “But what this guy did while he was out there, pretty good, with lots of swings and misses.”
Doubront was showing a 92-93 mph fastball, the improved curveball he achieved last year and a swing-and-miss changeup. However, he suffered a mild, Grade 1 strain of his left groin during a bullpen session last week. He was scratched from his scheduled start on Saturday. He’s been throwing on flat ground, and the Sox believe that once the soreness is completely gone, Doubront will likely just need a couple of side sessions before returning to games.
However, out of concern that the injury (which is to the 23-year-old’s push-off leg) could linger if Doubront gets back on the mound too soon. And so, at a time when he might have been under consideration for a call-up, Doubront was instead unable to enter the mix this time.
“It’s unfortunate, obviously, for the timing,” said Hazen.
ADDITIONAL MINOR LEAGUE HEALTH UPDATES
–Ryan Kalish is, according to Hazen, doing “everything” as he works to rehab from his left shoulder injury in Fort Myers. He is swinging and throwing, though the Sox are proceeding at a deliberate pace with Kalish’s throwing program.
“There’s going to be some apprehension, and it’s probably going to take a little bit of time because nobody wants to go too fast on this thing and irritate anything,” said Hazen. “There’s still going to be a timeframe built into this thing, but he’s doing almost everything.”
Kalish is now throwing from 60-90 feet. He will build his distance gradually — instead of moving up from one milestone to the next on a day-to-day basis, Kalish is more likely to remain at a set distance for a period of time while he builds back his strength. Still, the Sox continue to be satisfied with the idea that the 23-year-old is making progress back to the diamond without surgery.
–Yamaico Navarro, who would have been in line for a call-up when Marco Scutaro suffered his oblique injury, but instead was sidelined by an oblique injury of his own, remains in Fort Myers with Kalish. He has resumed workouts — cardio, weights and range of motion activities — but, according to Hazen, he remains about a week away from baseball activities.
–Junichi Tazawa is nearing the start of a rehab assignment with Hi-A Salem, though Hazen suggested that the team was waiting to see how he came through a final bullpen session before committing to an official date for his first outing in a minor league game since undergoing Tommy John surgery last April. In extended spring training, Hazen said that the right-hander’s velocity has been “down a tick,” around 88-90 mph, though that could be a reflection of the sleepy Fort Myers setting in which he’s pitching. And so, the Sox are hopeful that Tazawa’s stuff will play up a bit once he is back under the lights, with more adrenaline against more advanced competition.