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Far from a control freak

Miller (six walks) not hurt by early wildness

Andrew Miller labored through the second inning, walking the bases loaded. Andrew Miller labored through the second inning, walking the bases loaded. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 21, 2011

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BALTIMORE - When the Orioles’ Craig Tatum came up with the bases loaded and one out in the second inning yesterday, he didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to save Andrew Miller.

Not quite sure what Tatum was thinking. And no doubt manager Buck Showalter did not approve. The situation: After retiring the first batter of the inning, Miller walked the bases loaded. Not many of us have played major league baseball, but most of us have the sense to know that you make Miller throw a strike.

Not Tatum. He was up there hacking.

The last time I checked, Tatum didn’t have the credentials of Roberto Clemente or Nomar Garciaparra, or even Vladimir Guerrero, aggressive hitters who could not care less about counts. Tatum should care. He fouled off Miller’s first pitch, saw a couple of balls, then decided to hack again. The result: an inning-ending double play. Miller could only thank the baseball gods for Craig Tatum. And to Miller’s credit, he got himself together and gave the Red Sox 5 2/3 innings in a 4-0 victory.

Now, you can’t go as far as to say Miller pitched well. He walked six, got his pitch count to 103, and fell shy of a quality start (six innings allowing three or fewer runs). But after injuries to Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, the Sox will take this hard-to-define outing against a bad team.

The Red Sox must get quality pitching to win the division and go deep into the postseason. They’re in a transition period, starting to get their horses back. Josh Beckett returned to form with eight one-hit innings against the Rays Sunday night, and Lester threw a bullpen session yesterday morning and seems on track to return from the disabled list Monday against the Royals. Buchholz threw from 120 feet again yesterday and could start throwing off a mound by the weekend. Even John Lackey is starting to pitch better, so the fragmented rotation is starting to come together.

When all are well, Miller will likely be the fifth starter. The Sox are 5-1 in his starts. They’ll take that from a fifth starter any time.

When you’re a high-payroll team, there aren’t too many spots on the roster for development. But the Sox have allowed themselves to experiment in a couple of places. One is catcher, where Jarrod Saltalamacchia is emerging as a pretty good player who has power from both sides of the plate. And his catching and throwing are improving. Miller has been another experiment.

The Red Sox love his arm, and it appears he’s reined in his fastball, which he used to throw in the high 90s but is now 92-94. That’s good enough to get major league hitters out when he’s locating it well. The Sox are, in a sense, developing Miller for the future while hoping he keeps the team in games in the present. It hasn’t always been pretty or efficient, and he may always struggle with his release point because he’s so tall (6 feet 7 inches) and there are so many moving parts to his delivery.

In most of his starts, he’s had times when his mechanics have faltered. Repeating a delivery becomes second nature to good pitchers. Roy Halladay, for instance, rarely gets out of his delivery. And look how long it took 6-10 Randy Johnson to find enough consistency to where he knew where the ball was going. That Johnson was able to do that with his body was nothing short of remarkable. Tampa Bay’s Jeff Niemann, who is 6-9, also finds himself getting out of kilter from time to time.

When it happens, it’s ugly.

Miller allowed seven runs in 2 2/3 innings in his last start, July 15 against Tampa Bay. He walked five in that outing, four in the outing before that. In three outings, 15 walks isn’t going to cut it, and Miller knows it. His delivery was never more messed up than the Tampa Bay outing, when even Rays manager Joe Maddon commented that there were too many moving parts going in the wrong direction.

But Miller is a smart guy who works hard when things go awry. He spent a lot of time watching video, trying to break down what he was doing wrong. Yesterday, he came out doing it right, but then the second inning came along.

Miller called the double play “enormous. I think I lost the zone really quickly there, but you have to get it back quickly. Fortunate to throw a couple of fastballs for strikes. Actually, the first two changeups I threw to him were in the dirt. [Jason Varitek] put it down again. Got him a little out front and we made the [double play] turn. The game goes a different way if that doesn’t happen.’’

Miller was thankful. The double play bought him time, allowed him to make adjustments.

“I was nibbling a little bit,’’ he said. “The second inning, I was up in the zone. I put so much emphasis on trying to go fast because of the heat, I had to take a step back and settle down, and fortunately I was able to. That was a momentum shift and that probably deflated them when they weren’t able to get anything out of it.’’

As jagged as Miller’s performances have been, it’s a lot better than what he used to be. He spent time in Triple A trying to smooth it out, and managed to do it, which got him recalled to Boston.

Now he’s out of minor league options and the Red Sox do not want to risk having him clear waivers to outright him to Pawtucket. So he’s here for the foreseeable future.

Miller is unpredictable, but the Sox will take almost six innings with two hits and no runs. Just hold the six walks.

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

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