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Miller is staking his claim

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 27, 2011

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PITTSBURGH — Maybe the four-game funk the Red Sox experienced was the cumulation of no Clay Buchholz, no Josh Beckett, no Jed Lowrie, no Carl Crawford, and for the most part, no David Ortiz. Maybe it was just a funk, period. But lefthander Andrew Miller helped the Red Sox salvage one game against the Pirates by tossing six strong innings in yesterday’s 4-2 win.

Miller showed fortitude during a difficult fifth inning. With the score tied at 1, he walked pitcher James McDonald, allowed a single to Garrett Jones, and then saw Chase d’Arnaud reach on a bunt single to third base. It could have been a disastrous inning, but the tall lefty limited the damage and walked away trailing, 2-1. Andrew McCutchen drove in the go-ahead run with a single that skimmed past Kevin Youkilis at third, but left fielder Josh Reddick threw to Youkilis and got Jones, who had overrun the bag.

Miller then struck out the dangerous Neil Walker and got Matt Diaz to fly to right.

Right then and there, Miller won the game and ended this four-game downer for his team.

The Sox always look for unfulfilled talent and try to bring it out. They’ve done it with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who keeps inching his way up the lineup while his defense gets steadier.

A good example of thinking outside the box is Pittsburgh closer Joel Hanrahan, who has 22 saves and is throwing 98 miles per hour. Though he was having a horrible 2009 season with the Nationals, the Sox felt the righty had the potential to be a significant addition and came close to consummating a trade. Hanrahan wound up going to the Pirates, and now, according to an American League assistant general manager, “he’s one of the top five closers in baseball.’’

When Buchholz returns from the disabled list (he’s eligible July 4, though he probably will make a rehab start), the Sox will have some rearranging to do with their pitching staff.

Miller sure looks like a guy who should remain in the starting rotation, and after the Sox made it a point to stretch him out at Pawtucket, why would they go backward and relegate him to the pen?

However, the Sox could very well make Miller their lefty out of the bullpen. If they decide Miller is too valuable to the rotation, they would have to choose between Tim Wakefield or John Lackey heading to the pen.

In the past, that choice would be Wakefield, but why should it be now? Lackey is the one with a 7.36 ERA. The Sox could go with a six-man rotation, though they’ve resisted doing that over the years.

All of this thinking must take place because Miller has forced the issue.

Using an assortment of curveballs and his hard fastball, Miller put forth his second consecutive strong start since his call-up. He shut out the Padres through five innings last Monday before faltering in a game the Sox won, 14-5.

Miller seems pretty confident and comfortable on the mound.

The Sox didn’t exactly play their best defense behind him. Far from it. In the fourth inning, Miller hit Walker with a pitch, and then shortstop Marco Scutaro whiffed on a grounder by Diaz that could have resulted in a twin killing. One out later the Pirates scored on a sacrifice fly by Ronny Cedeno. In the third, Reddick dropped a liner by d’Arnaud that would’ve been the third out. But Miller confidently got McCutchen to ground out.

“It felt pretty good,’’ Miller said. “Kind of battled through a lot of innings. Managed to get by and they made some nice plays behind me. We’ll take a win any time we get it.’’

Regarding the fifth inning, Miller said, “I think I was able to get soft contact when we wanted it and the guys made some great plays.’’

For Miller, one of the biggest reasons for his improvement has been his new pregame routine in which he throws more pitches in the bullpen. It came out of a meeting with Pawtucket pitching coach Rich Sauveur.

“It came up because I had troubles in the first inning or two,’’ said Miller. “I just adjusted it so I have more time and throw more out there so I’m ready when the game starts. When I came up, I was confident the way I was throwing the ball down there and felt confident it would carry over here. No reason to change anything, just fine-tune things and work between outings, but ultimately things are going in the right direction.

“I changed it up a little bit and it’s helped me get the game started and helped me be aggressive. I feel settled in from the start.’’

But he knows his success has been about more than just the bullpen routine.

“I wish it was that simple, but so far the adjustments have worked and just try to keep it going,’’ he said. “It’s been a good place for me and the work I’ve done has panned out so far. For the most part, that bullpen routine is the biggest change. Ultimately, though, I just have to throw the ball over the plate and make good pitches.’’

Miller obviously has an outstanding fastball (95-97 miles per hour) when he needs it, but his breaking ball and changeup have also been excellent. Yesterday, Miller said his changeup just wasn’t there.

“Didn’t throw as many today because, to be honest with you, I didn’t feel it was a good pitch for me. There’s always gonna be days like that where the breaking ball is better, or the changeup is better, or the command of one or the other isn’t there. Today Salty and I adjusted. We threw a couple of them early but it didn’t seem like it was the best pitch for me today.’’

Manager Terry Francona and pitching coach Curt Young used words such as “poise’’ and “composure’’ to describe how Miller navigated through tough situations so skillfully.

This is no small order for Miller, who because of his 6-foot-7-inch frame can get out of kilter quickly. He has had a very tough journey to this point. He has so much unfulfilled promise, a disappointment to those organizations that gave up on him.

But the Sox aren’t going to bail out on him now.

Which is why, if Miller continues to pitch well, he’s not going back to the bullpen, and he’s not being sent back to Triple A.

Miller isn’t going anywhere.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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