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Delcarmen set up for important role

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 5, 2007
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You're not going to thumb your nose at Brad Lidge if he gets healthy and arrives in a trade, but if he doesn't or if the Red Sox can't make a deal for a quality righthanded setup man, Manny Delcarmen is starting to make a serious case for himself.

Everyone always knew he had the stuff. He had the mid-90s fastball and a very good curveball, but what he hasn't had until now is the conviction and trust in his pitches. He hasn't been able to stand on the mound with that Jonathan Papelbon surliness and toughness, and know he can win the battle against any batter he faces.

Delcarmen showed that last Friday against Sammy Sosa, striking him out in a key situation. He showed it again yesterday when he got the Sox out of the seventh inning by striking out Jonny Gomes with a runner at third, and then pitched an effective eighth leading up to Papelbon, who emerged with his 20th save in a 7-5 win over the Devil Rays.

When you're up by 11 1/2 games right before the All-Star break, you can search for things that could be answers in the second half of the season. Could Delcarmen be the Sox' answer in such an important role?

"As time goes on here, he's getting more outs of importance," said pitching coach John Farrell. "He gives us a little bit different look in the game, particularly with the power that he's got. As long as he can throw strikes, he's got the physical abilities to pitch in that role. The importance of the situation is going to determine how he manages his emotions and keeps calm in those situations. It was good to see him come back after throwing five straight balls [in the eighth, walking Raul Casanova] and still get a strikeout [Dustin Mohr to end the inning].

"It was a key out in the game. He's dictating how late he can go in the game by his performance as each successive outing takes place. He's a guy that gets ready very quick for us. We know we have a good matchup in terms of his velocity. He has some deception in his delivery, he can get some swings and misses with his fastball, and he's a guy who definitely profiles later in the game."

Papelbon has been impressed with Delcarmen.

"We had a long talk the other day," Papelbon said. "I said, 'Make this your last stop, man. If you get behind, 3-0 or 3-1, you've got to challenge them. You've got to pound the strike zone.' It's big that Tito [Francona] is giving him the opportunities. Me and him came up through the system and we're similar pitchers. I think he was a little tentative in the past in pounding the strike zone. Once you get that confidence . . . maybe we can be together here for a long time to come."

Delcarmen's curve has always been his out pitch, but he's finding he's got to get ahead with his fastball. Papelbon feels Delcarmen has enough in his arsenal to assume the righthanded setup role and help out Hideki Okajima in the seventh and eighth innings. Mike Timlin has filled that role in the past, but the Sox don't appear inclined to use Timlin that way anymore. Joel Piñeiro and Brendan Donnelly are on the disabled list, which leaves the Sox hoping Delcarmen can pick up the slack.

"You can never have enough of them," said Farrell of relievers. "Tito does a tremendous job in picking spots, especially following [Tim] Wakefield because there's such a contrast in styles there. That's a game we try to match him up behind Wakefield. It will come down to fastball command."

Although Farrell did not coach Delcarmen last season, reports indicated that Delcarmen's fastball was between 93 and 96 miles per hour. This season, the low end is 94, with the high end around 97. Delcarmen went through a strengthening program in the offseason, which seems to have worked.

After the Red Sox declined to include him in a trade for Todd Helton last winter, Delcarmen started slowly at Pawtucket. Questions were raised that Delcarmen might not come around as the pitcher the organization hoped he'd be. But it all began to click. He pitched 15 2/3 scoreless innings in his last 10 outings before his call-up, after having a 7.24 ERA in his first 10 games.

The seminal moment seemed to be the strikeout of Sosa. When you can blow a fastball by someone who has hit 600 home runs, it's something you never forget.

"It showed a lot in me," said Delcarmen. "I threw two pitches on 3-2 and he fouled them off. To have to throw a third one, probably a year ago I would have walked him. To be able to throw a strike in that situation showed me a lot and it probably showed Tito a lot, too."

Papelbon has taught him that he needs to stay in a good routine. So now his workouts and his running between appearances remain the same. He knows what works and what doesn't.

"Last year, I felt really tired at the end of the season," said Delcarmen. "This year, I pretty much just want to not feel tired and I just want to be in the best shape that I can. My shoulder feels a lot stronger than it did at this time last year."

It's all about getting ahead in the count and staying in control. If you trust your fastball enough, you trust that not even the quickest bat will catch up to it. Throw it, and as Papelbon says, "Here, try and hit it."

"I've had a good opportunity to help the team out lately," Delcarmen said. "I don't think I'm a different pitcher. I just think I'm more relaxed and a little more comfortable. Just not letting the game speed up on me. Right now, strike one is really helping me out up here and I have to keep going with it. When I fall behind is when I really get in trouble."

If a market does develop for Lidge, who has recovered from a strained oblique only to have his knee lock up, the Sox will likely be in it because they've coveted him for years. But as their pursuit of the White Sox' Mark Buehrle illustrated, sometimes the price is too high. The Astros would want a ton, maybe even Delcarmen, just as the Rockies did (along with Craig Hansen).

What do you do? Delcarmen is starting to make that decision easier.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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