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Penny in their thoughts

Scouts keep eye on Sox 'extra' pitcher

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 18, 2009
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You can make a case that Brad Penny might be the most-watched pitcher in baseball. Why? Because there are so many teams who would love to pry him from the Red Sox and get him into their rotation.

Last night was no exception, with scouts watching from behind home plate. Philadelphia and Texas appear most interested.

“He is the best name out there for available starting pitchers,’’ said one National League talent evaluator.

His availability remains to be seen. But the scout is right. With Jake Peavy and Erik Bedard on the disabled list and the Indians unable to decide whether they’ll make Carl Pavano available, Penny, 6-2 after throwing 100 pitches over five innings in last night’s 6-1 win over Florida, remains a top target.

The Red Sox so far have elected to stand pat, and the way things are going, they should.

“No, I don’t think I’m going to be traded,’’ Penny said. “But there’s always that chance.’’

It’s amazing what has transpired for Penny in less than a year. He was virtually a pariah in Los Angeles, where Dodgers personnel couldn’t wait for his tenure to end. Yet here it has been 180 degrees different, Terry Francona even commenting last night that it has been “fun to get to know him. He’s been a pleasure.’’

That isn’t usually said about someone you’re about to dump in a trade just so you can make room for a 42-year-old pitcher (John Smoltz) who hasn’t pitched in a major league game this season.

Penny, who lasted only five innings and gave up one unearned run, while his ERA dipped to 4.94, showed his toughness when he absorbed a line drive off the chest by Jeremy Hermida in the first inning that he said hit him square in the heart. Kevin Youkilis picked up the ball and made the play.

“I don’t know how he stayed in that game and pitched,’’ Francona said. “So I thought he got a little stiff and when I say stiff I mean right here [pointing to his chest], not in the shoulder area. I don’t know how he did it. He’s a tough kid.’’

Francona said he kidded Penny that, “ ‘If you collapse, we’ll get [Justin] Masterson in the game.’ You can’t hurt him. He’s a strong kid and he likes to pitch. But then again, when the game was over, I came to pat him on the chest and I thought he had a pacemaker. He’s got a pretty good welt there.’’

Penny shrugged it off.

“It’s good. It’s fine,’’ he said. “It hit me in a pretty good spot. It hurt for a second, but after that it didn’t seem to affect me at all. I’d probably be more [upset] if it was a hit.’’

Penny fell victim to an outfield error by Jacoby Ellsbury, who misplayed a first-inning drive by Jorge Cantu that hit off his glove and should have been the third out.

“I got myself into a lot of jams, but I think I made the pitches when I needed to,’’ Penny said. “A couple of good defensive plays - [Nick Green] diving for that ball [Hanley Ramirez hit in the fifth] and Mikey Lowell, the very next hitter [a liner by Cantu] getting out helped me out a little bit. The four walks I’ve got to cut out. I feel really strong. I think that was one of my problems tonight. I felt a little too good. The last two games back to back is probably the best I’ve felt over the last five years.’’

Well, you could see it with a 97-mile-per-hour fastball.

“I thought he had an exploding fastball,’’ Francona said. “I mean, on a real good fastball-hitting team, he threw a lot of good fastballs. Again, I thought because of the aggressiveness with his fastball, I thought his pitch count got up pretty high.’’

Penny said he believes the Red Sox’ shoulder strengthening program, which he began shortly after he signed in the offseason, has been key to regaining his velocity.

“These guys worked their butt off. I finally just watched them and followed what they were doing. It’s incredible. I really believe if I hadn’t signed here I wouldn’t be pitching,’’ said Penny, adding, “The velocity is back to what it was when I was 21.’’

Penny will be part of this quasi-six-man rotation for a while. Although the Red Sox don’t anticipate sticking to it for the rest of the year, Penny says he’ll do anything to help the team.

It would appear the Sox won’t want Josh Beckett or Jon Lester disrupted from going every fifth day. Daisuke Matsuzaka certainly has to start performing better, but while in Japan he pitched once a week, so a six-man rotation would suit him. Tim Wakefield has shown he can adapt to anything.

“I don’t know,’’ said Penny about the six-man. “That’s up to them. I’m just going to go and pitch when they tell me to pitch. They’ve got a lot of tough decisions.’’

Penny, who has surrendered only one earned run over his past two starts (11 innings) and is 3-1 with a 3.12 ERA in six starts beginning May 20, firmly believes “there’s a place for everyone. If you get traded or you’re here, there’s a place for you to pitch. It’s a great thing we have all this pitching. If somebody gets hurt, you have backup plans. That’s a great problem. Smoltz is coming back and that’s going to be huge. He knows a lot, he’s pitched a lot, and I have no doubt he’s going to be successful.’’

Penny said pitchers will have different views about a six-man rotation.

“I think if you ask Josh Beckett if he wants five days rest in between he’s going to say no. Then there are other players who might want the extra day. I think each individual person is going to be different. In a perfect world I’d like to stay in a five-man rotation but anything that’s going to help us win, I’m all for it.’’

One of the scouts last night was impressed with Penny’s fastball and his arm strength, but hopes to see Penny get further into a game.

Right now the Red Sox are pretty pleased with what they see. Is he available? The Sox have fielded lots of interest and offers. You’ll notice they haven’t pulled the trigger. And given how much they value their pitching depth, they may not. That won’t stop teams from having an eagle eye on Penny.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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