Reliever’s goal: a hold
Atchison aims to keep spot in the bullpen
FORT MYERS, Fla. — For Scott Atchison, the best moment of his baseball career did not come on the field. He didn’t even get in the game that day.
For the itinerant relief pitcher, it was the simple pleasure of standing on the first base foul line at Fenway Park last April 4 and listening to Keri Hilson sing the national anthem.
Atchison had pitched in the major leagues before. But that night marked the first time he had made a roster for Opening Day. He was one of the best 25, not a spare part called up later in the season.
“I finally did what I was trying to do for a long time, be standing there on Opening Day,’’ he said. “I had been in the big leagues. But that day was big for me.’’
Atchison, 34, appeared in 31 games for the Mariners and 22 more for the Giants from 2004-07 before spending two seasons in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers, going overseas to earn a better living than he could trying to break out of the minors.
But Atchison was compelled to return. The primary reason was better access to medical care for his daughter Callie, an energetic 3-year-old born without radius bones in her forearms. Atchison also wanted to give the majors one more chance.
He succeeded on both accounts, making the Red Sox out of spring training and appearing in 43 games last season despite three demotions to Triple A Pawtucket. At the same time, Callie responded well to therapy and is learning how to use her hands.
It was a success story. But now Atchison faces the tough task of doing it again.
The Red Sox have 20 relief pitchers in camp competing for seven spots. Five of those jobs belong to Daniel Bard, Bobby Jenks, Jonathan Papelbon, Tim Wakefield, and Dan Wheeler. Another most likely will go to a lefthander.
Atchison is the favorite to claim the other spot. But Alfredo Aceves, Matt Albers, Michael Bowden, Matt Fox, and Tony Pena Jr. have their own dreams, too. When asked how secure Atchison was, manger Terry Francona chose his words carefully.
“He was very valuable to our bullpen and we anticipate going forward with the same thing,’’ he said. “We felt a need to stabilize that bullpen. We don’t know how things are going to break six weeks ahead of time. But we certainly like what Atch does.’’
That’s a polite way of saying, “He has to prove it again.’’
Atchison expected that to be the case. He was paying attention over the winter when the organization signed one reliever after another to fix a leaky bullpen.
“I don’t know that I could come to spring and not think I’m competing for a job,’’ said Atchison. “I feel like I had a good year. But I knew they were going to go out and make some moves.
“They brought in some guys to compete. That’s what they told me, it’s competition. They said, ‘You’re used to it, you’ve done it. Just go out and do your thing.’ ’’
Atchison also has a minor league option remaining, meaning the Red Sox can send him to Pawtucket without taking him off the 40-man roster. That could factor into their decision.
Atchison’s value last season was in his versatility. He pitched two or more innings 14 times, including a three-inning start against Philadelphia June 12 when Daisuke Matsuzaka could not get loose.
He allowed only 22 percent of inherited runners to score, the best on the team and eighth in the American League. He also held righthanders to a .220 batting average.
“I thought Atch was huge for us,’’ Bard said. “He picked up a lot of big innings for us and that kept other people fresh. You need guys like that.’’
Atchison was generally pleased with how he pitched, especially considering his long absence from the majors. But he spent time over the winter breaking down each performance, looking for ways to get an edge gong into the season.
He was disappointed that lefthanders hit .290 against him, unusual given his success in attacking batters on both sides of the plate in previous seasons.
“I kind of got into a funk and struggled against lefthanders,’’ he said. “So I looked back at what I had done. I focused on that. I think I got a little too cutter-heavy, not using my curveball as much. One of the things this spring is getting back to using that a little more to lefthanders.’’
Once the exhibition games start, Atchison plans to pay attention only to those factors he can control and not worry about the competition. He also is relying on the idea that the Red Sox know they can trust him.
“If I have a rough spring training outing, I don’t have to worry that they think that’s my norm,’’ he said. “I feel like they know what my norm is. I’m going with that and not worrying about the rest.
“I’m taking it similar to last spring, but not quite to the extreme. Last year they didn’t know me. This year I feel like they know who I am and what I can do.’’