|Mark DeRosa (left) is congratulated by Travis Hafner after scoring the winning run on a Javier Lopez error in the ninth. (Tony Dejak/Associated Press)|
It certainly wasn't shiny Penny outing
CLEVELAND - On many other staffs, Brad Penny would get a while to show consistency and to smooth out the rough spots.
On the Red Sox' staff? Not so sure.
When you have Daisuke Matsuzaka on the disabled list but feeling he could go out and throw nine innings right now . . . when you have John Smoltz preparing to take a spot in the rotation when he's ready in June . . . when you have young Clay Buchholz starting to pitch well at Pawtucket . . . when you have a young pitcher like Justin Masterson whom you really don't want to return to the bullpen, then, well, you have a dilemma.
It means whoever is not pitching well faces demotion.
In this case, with the Red Sox' winning streak ending at 11 last night, it's clearly Penny who must step up his game from now until the time Matsuzaka is ready to rejoin the active roster (May 12?). If he doesn't, then Terry Francona's decision won't be tough.
The Red Sox overstocked their starting rotation in the winter, building in depth to offset injuries. They have Tim Wakefield, who is 42 years old but has pitched out of his mind. They have Josh Beckett, who sometimes needs a couple of weeks off to rest his arm. Management realized that one or two of the starters might either get hurt or not be effective. So the Sox left themselves options, some of which they've already been able to exercise.
Penny was signed pretty cheaply as a reclamation project after an injury-filled season with the Dodgers. The Red Sox got what they felt was a very good arm when healthy, a guy who can throw 95 miles per hour and dominate. But while we've seen the 95, opponents have been able to catch up to him in two of his four starts.
The Sox were very fortunate to win three of those starts, a tribute to their bullpen and their offense. In one, he was staked to a 5-1 lead and blew it.
He had another stinker last night, lasting only 2 2/3 innings, allowing seven runs, four earned, with three walks. A Julio Lugo error in a four-run third (dropped throw on a force attempt) didn't help matters, nor did Mike Lowell's throwing error in the second inning.
In that second inning, Penny allowed a single to Jhonny Peralta to left-center and a single to Mark DeRosa. Ben Francisco grounded to third and Lowell threw high and wide of Dustin Pedroia at second, scoring Peralta with DeRosa going to third. Penny struck out Grady Sizemore, and after a steal of second by Francisco, the righthander walked Asdrubal Cabrera and the second run scored on Victor Martinez's sacrifice fly.
But Penny did a lot of things on his own as well. Francisco's three-run homer in the third was his doing as he allowed a one-out single to Shin-Shoo Choo and hit Peralta with a pitch. DeRosa then hit a grounder to Kevin Youkilis, who threw to second, where Lugo dropped the ball, scoring Choo.
That set the stage for Francisco's homer.
The Sox are an elite team with an elite pitching staff and lots of artillery behind Penny if he doesn't straighten out soon.
"I had better stuff," Penny said. "My split was working a little bit better. I thought after the first inning I settled down and pitched a little better. I felt pretty good."
While Francona acknowledged the errors behind Penny and said "the ball came out of his hand well," he also thought Penny had location issues, particularly on Francisco's homer - a sinker that Penny said basically didn't sink.
Penny thought he had very good offspeed pitches, but one scout at the game wondered why he was throwing so many of them, given that he seemed to have a good fastball working.
Penny has pitched only 17 2/3 innings in the regular season. He came along slowly in spring training, and there was some discussion as to whether he would be ready for the start of the season. But the decision was made to go ahead.
Penny doesn't seem concerned about his physical condition or that this wasn't a great outing, errors or no errors. In fact, he claimed the errors didn't bother him, though they certainly added to his pitch count.
"That happens. That's baseball," he said. "We just have to get past it. We had our chances to win tonight. But tomorrow's a different day.
"I'm pretty close. I feel really good. Everything is there. My velocity is there. My strength is there. Just a couple of bad breaks tonight. I just have to go out there and keep going and make pitches when I need to."
Asked if he felt pressure to perform - with all the depth on the staff - he said, "No, not really. As long as I'm healthy, I'll be fine."
On most any other team, that might be true. Here he needs to be better than fine.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.