Felix Doubront's found himself at a crossroads three batters into his third inning of work Wednesday night, when the Twins had strung together a double, a walk, and a single to load the bases and seriously threaten a four-run Red Sox lead.
It was this type of situation that had stung Doubront so far this season, and helped send him to the mound in Minnesota with a 5.09 ERA. He'd repeatedly allowed one bad inning to taint an otherwise solid performance, evidenced by the fact that in the worst frame of each of his first seven starts he'd yielded a total of 20 hits and 16 runs.
In the other 28.1 innings he'd pitched, more than four times as big a sample size, opponents had totaled 20 hits and nine runs. Doubront had struggled to quickly stop the bleeding once a wound had been opened. So things appeared rather precarious when the Twins started to rally in the third.
But, like he did in the second inning of his previous start, this time Doubront bore down and pitched his way out of danger.
After Brian Dozier filled the sacks with a single, Doubront got a flyball out of his first pitch to Joe Mauer, and, although it went as a sacrifice fly, it successfully slowed Minnesota's developing momentum. Next Doubront got ahead of Trevor Plouffe with a changeup then executed a fastball down and in to induce the second out on a low fly to center.
That brought Tuesday night hero Chris Parmelee to the plate, though the Sox southpaw gave him little chance to come through with another big hit. After getting ahead 1-and-2, Doubront dropped a curveball that broke over the outer edge of the plate, and Parmelee took it for strike three.
Inning over with just one run in, and a 4-1 lead intact.
"I felt pretty good. I limited the damage in those couple innings. Breaking ball was good, fastball was efficient -- two-seamer. Everything I threw felt good tonight," Doubront told reporters in Minneapolis after the game. "I was pretty calm in those situations, and positive in throwing the ball and getting outs."
Doubront also allowed a couple of hits to open the fourth, but came right back to retire the next three Twins' hitters, and that started a string of nine straight for the 26-year-old.
By the time Minnesota managed another baserunner it was the seventh inning, Boston had built its lead up to 7-1 with an attack highlighted by two more vengeance-filled homers from David Ortiz, and Doubront was an out away from matching his longest start since August.
He didn't get it, leaving with two aboard when he sandwiched his fifth strikeout between a couple of singles, but groundball specialist Burke Badenhop quickly defused that situation by getting Mauer to bounce into a double play. That finalized Doubront's line at seven hits, a walk, and a solo run over 6.1 innings. When the bullpen finished off a 9-3 triumph, he personally improved to 2-3 on the year. And the fourth quality start in his last six appearances dipped his ERA to 2.55 in May (as well as 4.54 overall).
"He started to get a little bit more of a rhythm; he worked with a little bit better pace overall," Farrell told reporters at Target Field. "He began to become a little bit more efficient in that third and fourth and carried it through into the seventh inning. When he missed, he missed outside of the strike zone. He didn't miss over the plate, and that was probably the difference between last night [with Jake Peavy] and tonight."
Doubront acknowledged that he was trying to pitch at a faster pace than usual, and that tempo has been a daily focal point as he works to become more efficient -- and, in turn, more consistent. He's off to a good start there, having now allowed three earned runs or fewer in seven of his eight starts.
And if he can continue to curtail the big inning before it happens, like he did when he reached that crossroads Wednesday, "quality start" might begin to mark the bottom end of Doubront's potential each time out.