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Signing could be huge

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 22, 2008

Tom Giordano, now scouting for the Texas Rangers, was a scout in the Cleveland organization when the Indians signed Bartolo Colon.

"Was he a little bit thinner then?" I asked.

"Not really," said Giordano. "He was always pretty heavy. It didn't matter, though, he could pitch. He had that great slider, could throw in the high 90s. Great arm. If he's anything like that guy, or the guy who won the Cy Young with the Angels, he's going to be a big pickup for Boston. I saw him in spring training and he was throwing the ball pretty well. He's a horse. He'll take the ball and give it his best every time out."

So we wondered what form of Bartolo Colon we would get last night in his return to the majors and his Red Sox debut. The reclamation project? The shadow of himself? The reinvented finesse guy? The guy who can still win on smarts and wisdom? The same old Colon?

"That Bartolo you saw seven years ago," said Colon through translator Ed Romero Jr. "Maybe a little bit different now, yet no less effective."

One thing that hasn't changed is that he's a big man.

Current photos indicate he's lost weight since spring training. The Sox put him on a nutrition program back then, concerned that girth would interfere with proper mechanics. They hoped he would stick to it. Then he suffered an oblique injury and required rest, usually not good for someone battling a weight issue. Hard to tell how much he's lost because the team is mum on that subject, but his mechanics seemed fine over the first few innings.

The fact we're talking about Colon possibly being Boston's fifth starter is interesting on a couple of levels. For one, you don't think of a former Cy Young winner, a two-time 20-game winner, and the author of a 147-95 record as a fifth starter. But that's what happens after an injury, after wear and tear on the shoulder or the elbow, and with age.

We're talking about a guy who in 2002 was traded along with J.D. Drew's brother, Tim, from the Indians to the Expos for Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, and Lee Stevens.

We're talking about a guy who earned his first major league win at Fenway June 7, 1997, 9-5, over Aaron Sele. He pitched seven innings in that game, allowing eight hits and four runs while striking out five.

Colon said last night's start brought him back to that day, when he had a super Indians lineup behind him, including Manny Ramírez, who is someone he calls a "second brother."

The Red Sox aren't asking Colon to be a 20-game winner again, just a guy who can maybe use his savvy to win a big game. Maybe just to fill the void left by Curt Schilling, who may not be a major factor this season.

Colon represents depth, the counterpoint to the youthful Clay Buchholz, who is on the disabled list. Colon is the eighth pitcher to start for the Red Sox, as management knew in the offseason it needed to acquire veteran insurance. While many teams watched Colon pitch winter ball in the Dominican and stayed away, the Red Sox dived in feet first. Allard Baird, assistant to the general manager, scouted Colon in the Dominican and decided he was worth the gamble.

"We say it all the time. If you think you need five starters for a year, you're crazy," said manager Terry Francona. "It doesn't happen very often and it's nice to be able to not have to bring somebody back early and then all of a sudden pay the price a month down the road."

The Sox performed their usual strength tests to determine how Colon's surgically repaired shoulder measured up. They concluded the shoulder was strong.

After teams watched him in spring training, scouts and GMs were kicking themselves for not taking the same leap.

Colon knew he was done last night after five innings because he had a pitch limit. Francona said after the game that Colon is in the rotation and will take his turn every fifth day.

One of the big concerns for scouts who watched Colon in spring training and in his recent rehab stint in Pawtucket was how long he could go before his fastball began to fade. He hit 97 miles per hour in his final outing for Pawtucket when he pitched six innings of one-hit ball at Buffalo. Last night, he threw two-seam fastballs in the low 90s and his four-seamer got cranked up to 96 at least twice.

Colon spotted his fastball well. There were a couple of breaking balls and changeups he felt he left up in the zone, which were hit. But for the most part, Colon came away encouraged.

"I was very nervous in the first inning," he said. "It felt like my first professional outing, actually, but after the first inning, I was able to settle down and really enjoy the moment."

Colon squirmed out of a jam in the first when he stranded two runners. He threw three ground outs in the second. He was touched for a run in the third when, with two outs and a runner at first, he walked Alex Gordon and Jose Guillen singled to center.

After a 1-2-3 fourth, Colon allowed three hits and a run in the fifth, but it could have been worse had he not retired the last two batters.

Colon wound up throwing 74 pitches and allowing six hits and two runs. He walked two and struck out four. He turned a 5-2 lead over to Craig Hansen and got the win in the 6-3 decision.

This wasn't the dominating Colon of old, but good enough. Good enough to make his signing one of the better low-budget decisions of the early season.

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

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