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Top PawSox prospects in action

By Eddie Pannone

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – With Eduardo Rodriguez already making an impact in Boston, this weekend featured two of Boston’s other top pitching prospects. Lefthanders Brian Johnson and Henry Owens each made starts at McCoy Stadium against the Toledo Mud Hens, one of the top offenses in the International League.

Johnson got the start Saturday night and was able to battle his way through seven innings. Coming off back-to-back outings where he threw under 80 pitches in an effort to manage his innings, the plan was for him to go over 90 for the first time in June. It was an interesting outing for Johnson to say the least. He allowed five runs, though just one of those was earned. After not hitting a batter in almost a year and a half, he drilled four in addition to walking two. Despite that, he was able to record the win while striking out six men and working through some jams. Through it all, he never looked intimidated and his mound presence was impressive.

“I felt fine,” Johnson said afterwards. “My changeup was there, though my fastball command wavered a little bit. Overall I feel great, no complaints about my body or arm.”

“His command was a little suspect at times,” manager Kevin Boles said. “He had to battle through some things out there. But to be able to go seven innings, there was some efficiency there. He did some good things. He competed the whole time even though we made some mistakes behind him.”

Both Johnson and Boles cited the changeup as a big reason for his success. Boles said the pitch helped him get out of some big jams and Johnson said it was one of the best changeups he’s had all season.

Owens went into his start with his team just 1-6 in the last seven games he pitched, but he did all he could to put an end to that funk. Sunday was arguably his best game of 2015, as he threw a season high 99 pitches and 65 strikes through six innings. He allowed just one run on four hits and one walk while striking a season best seven batters. He didn’t factor in the decision as Pawtucket fell 4-3.

“He showed a little bit more command of the zone today,” Boles said. “He worked out of some jams, but he gave us six solid innings.”

“Control has been a focus all year,” Owens said about his season. “I’ve felt comfortable out there mechanically and any adjustments I needed I made quickly.”

Though pleased with his performance, Owens was disappointed he could not complete the sweep for the PawSox against the Mud Hens. After an off day tomorrow, Pawtucket will hit the road for six games before returning home June 22nd.

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Flawed from the start

By Eddie Pannone

We all stood up and applauded Red Sox GM Ben Cherington after he constructed a championship roster in 2013. He was able to trade unwanted and unneeded salaries, was able to find good players that gelled together and was able to hire the right manager to lead the team. While he obviously didn’t play in any games, he was as big a reason as any why the Boston Red Sox won the World Series.

In 2015, he is the biggest reason why his club sits in last place.

Cherington ignored obvious flaws with the club while trying too hard to fix other ones. 2014 saw a team that couldn’t hit or pitch and his offseason saw him address the need for hitting. The need for a big bat was easy to see, but the need for a front line pitcher was needed just as much.

With an outfield producing no offense at all, Cherington’s first move really came in August when he signed Rusney Castillo to a 7-year, $72.5 million contract. With a young Mookie Betts ready to shine, a veteran in Victorino whom the organization claims to have full faith in when healthy, and Brock Holt who showed he could handle any position and produce, it would seem that the outfield was taken care of. The team also had Daniel Nava, Jackie Bradley and Allen Craig who could play outfield on their bench.

So what are their two big offseason moves? Signing Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to long term deals. To be clear, I like both of them as players, but the way the roster was constructed it just didn’t make sense. Of Castillo, Ramirez and Sandoval there was only room for two on this team. If Cherington thought that highly of Castillo, then either Ramirez or Sandoval made sense to fill third base. If the team really thought Ramirez could play left field (which so far doesn’t look like a good prediction), then the acquisition of Sandoval makes sense but the signing of Castillo doesn’t.

Castillo and his big contract were wasted away in Pawtucket for the beginning of the season while Ramirez struggled to handle left field. Meanwhile the Sox rotation, which could have used a front line starter like Jon Lester, James Shields (both free agents) or Cole Hamels, struggled with starters failing to reach expectations that weren’t that high to begin with. Wade Miley has been up and down while the man they traded away for him in Rubby De La Rosa has pitched more innings, struck out more batters, and issued less walks. Yoenis Cespedes, who the team got for Jon Lester, was traded away for Rick Porcello who has also been up and down all year. The only free agent pitcher signed was Justin Masterson, who Cherington hoped the club could turn around. It was a good idea, but not at the $9.5 million price tag.

Had some of that money invested in one of those offensive players been used to acquire a pitcher, some pressure would have gone off the staff on every start knowing they didn’t have to do too much. Players would feel much more comfortable in their roles and this team could be in a much better spot.

Cherington needed to address the organization’s needs, and while it looks like he made moves to address them they were not nearly adequate enough. The moves he made have not worked out well and the construction of the roster seemed to play a very little role in his moves. Unfortunately for this club, there doesn’t appear to be a miracle move that can turn them around. They have to rely on the players they have turning things around and at this point over performing. That is a scary position to be in, but one Cherington and the Red Sox put themselves in.

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Masterson tosses best rehab outing

By Eddie Pannone

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – Red Sox pitcher Justin Masterson continued his rehab assignment at McCoy Stadium Wednesday afternoon as he works his way back from a sore shoulder. After throwing 80 pitches for Double-A Portland June 5, Masterson looked to build on that outing in his second appearance for Pawtucket and third rehab start overall.

It was easily Masterson’s best performance, as he dominated the Charlotte Knights over his six innings of work. He allowed just two hits and a run while walking one, hitting a batter and striking out six. He only threw 75 pitches and was able to attack the strike zone while keeping the ball down most of the game.

“I was real happy with my outing,” Masterson said after the game. “I went out and was able to throw a lot of strikes. My sinker was moving. I had a good slider and four seam fastball and was able to stay under control. Each time I’ve gone out I’ve got better as well as being better under control and able to throw strikes.”

At one point, he was able to strike out four of five hitters and the only right handed batter he allowed to reach was on a hit-by-pitch. Charlotte, one of the top offenses in the I.L., did not look comfortable against Masterson and had several awkward cuts at his pitches.

“Everything was down in the zone,” he said “I got some bad swings and some uncomfortable swings and that’s what we want to have.”

Masterson didn’t say if he will make another rehab start, but it is assumed that he will make as many as he can before his rehab time is up. A spot in Boston’s rotation seems unlikely, though with what he showed today he would make a quality arm out of the bullpen. For now, Masterson is enjoying watching some of Boston’s other pitchers have success while focusing on his confidence.

“Guys are pitching well up there, but for me it’s just trying to build up that confidence. Last time I built up innings and then things started going haywire for me. That’s why I made this start and I felt good about it.”

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MLB debut giving Shaw confidence

By Eddie Pannone

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – The start of 2015 did not go as Travis Shaw had planned. The 25-year old prospect finished April with a .185 average and just five extra base hits. Trying to prove he belonged in the big leagues led him to press at the plate and question whether or not he would get his chance with Boston.

However, despite his slow start and all the other talent in the organization, that chance came on May 8 as he made his MLB debut against the Blue Jays. He made just one start with the Red Sox before being sent back to Pawtucket, but that promotion turned his season around.

“Getting the call was a confidence boost for me because I wasn’t swinging well early in the year,” Shaw said. “Being able to come back down and sort of relax a little bit after getting that call, showing that I’m still in their mind, it calmed me down and allowed me to go through my daily routine.”

His confidence and comfort have shown ever since. Shaw has been the hottest PawSox hitter since he was sent down, showing more extra base power while leading the team with 26 RBIs. His last 18 games have been exceptional, batting .348 with two home runs, four doubles, nine RBIs and seven walks.

Shaw, a left handed hitter, has been able to perform against left handed pitchers almost as well as right handers, with his splits being just 12 points apart. His 2014 numbers didn’t show he could produce against southpaws, but with work it is something that Shaw is becoming more comfortable with.

“Last year my numbers didn’t show it, but I didn’t feel overmatched,” he said. “This year my numbers show a little bit more success early on. I’m still working on things everyday but right now I’m comfortable whether it’s a lefty or righty.”

Being able to identify breaking balls has been the key to his success. Pitches that he would have chased in past games he can hold off on, something that lets him know he is seeing lefties well.

“If they flip in a good breaking ball down and I don’t chase, then I know I’m in a pretty good spot.”

Shaw knows a return to the majors won’t be easy, but he is doing whatever he can to get that call sooner rather than later. A natural first baseman, he has spent time at third base and left field in an effort to increase his versatility. From game to game he doesn’t know where he’ll be playing, but it’s something he enjoys.

“For me versatility is always good because you never know where you will be needed. If you play three different spots, then that’s three different opportunities if someone goes down in Boston.”

The next MLB opportunity for Shaw is unknown, but until then he will continue to develop and learn with Pawtucket. For a player who was not talked much about to start 2015, he certainly has made the case for his MLB future.

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Masterson makes first rehab start

By Eddie Pannone

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – Red Sox pitcher Justin Masterson made his first rehab appearance with Pawtucket on Sunday as he recovers from right shoulder tendonitis. He was placed on the 15-day disabled list May 13, a day after getting roughed up by the Athletics for six runs in just 2.1 innings. Overall in seven starts for the Red Sox, he is 2-2 with a 6.37 ERA, pitching more than five innings just three times.

Returning to McCoy Stadium for the first time since 2008 when he was just a prospect, Masterson was scheduled to pitch three innings for the PawSox. His outing did not inspire confidence for a struggling Boston pitching staff.

Masterson could only muster five outs in the game while showing poor command throughout. In addition to two earned runs and two hits, he allowed three walks and two wild pitches. Masterson was able to record a pair of punch outs, but threw 50 pitches in his effort. He topped out at 91 M.P.H, though he sat in the high 80s.

Mechanics have been problematic for Masterson by his own admission, and working through some bad habits he’s formed is his focus.

“My warm-up and first inning felt tremendous,” Masterson said. “In the second I felt good physically, but mechanically not so much. I was rushing, drifting and everything was going out, so everything started falling behind.”

Masterson, who was upbeat after his start, reported that his shoulder felt good and his struggles came strictly because of his mechanics.

“It wasn’t because I was tired. I was like ‘I want to throw harder, I feel so good, let me gain more,’ but that’s not how you gain more. That’s something I’ve been battling as I’ve played catch because I’ve formed some bad habits.”

A return to the rotation is far from a sure thing for Masterson when he is ready to go, as Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright have outperformed him at the big league level. A more likely scenario would be Masterson moving to the bullpen as a long reliever or situational pitcher. In the mean time, Masterson will throw a bullpen session in two days before making his next rehab start with Portland.

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PawSox embrace versatility

By Eddie Pannone

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – Change is not always the easiest thing for someone to buy into, especially when that person is a professional baseball player. However, the Pawtucket Red Sox know change could be their calling card to Boston. From night to night, manager Kevin Boles shakes up his lineup by putting players at positions where they have minimal experience.

“I come to the ballpark, check the lineup out and wherever I’m at, that’s the glove I use that day,” PawSox slugger Travis Shaw said.

He is one of many players who are trying to gain position flexibility. Shaw, a natural first baseman, has played more than half his games at third base this season and recently added left field to his list of positions played.

“I like it,” he explained. “For me versatility is always good because you never know where you will be needed. If you play three different spots, then that’s three different opportunities if someone goes down in Boston.” This versatility allowed Shaw to be promoted to the Red Sox on May 8, as he made his MLB debut against the Blue Jays.

This doesn’t get lost on other players in the clubhouse. Deven Marrero, who has the potential to be a gold glove shortstop, has moved around to third base and second base for the first time in his pro career.

“Obviously we love him as a shortstop,” Boles said, “but to gain him some versatility I think will be beneficial to him. He’s done well wherever we ask him to play and shows pretty good game awareness.”

Garin Cecchini, who moved around last year as well, has played third base, left field and recently added first base to his repertoire. Allen Craig played first base, left field and right field in his MLB career and has done so in limited time with the PawSox. The list goes on and on, as almost everyone on the roster can play multiple spots.

So how has Boles and his staff got their players to buy into this day-to-day change?

“I think it speaks for itself as far as the major league club,” he said. “Obviously we have a terrific example in Brock Holt and we always point to that. He’s the ultimate example of versatility and how much it is needed.”

Seeing multiple success stories has allowed the team to embrace change and be ready whenever they get their chance to play in the big leagues.

“As long as you’re playing in the big leagues, you want to make sure you have answers and are ready,” Boles said. “The tone is set by John Farrell and the major league staff as far as versatility and the importance of it. We all understand that.”

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Owens takes step forward against Bats

By Eddie Pannone

PAWTCUKET, R.I. – Red Sox top pitching prospect Henry Owens has pitched very well after a shaky start to his season, but you wouldn’t know it based on how Pawtucket has fared when he pitches. The team had lost four straight Owens starts, including three in which he allowed one run or less, going into Saturday’s game.

After a rough outing May 10 in Columbus where he walked six batters and was pulled after throwing 13 straight balls in the fifth inning, Owens strung together three good starts in a row. Despite poor run support, he has kept the PawSox in games by going at least five innings and keeping his offense within striking distance. His 2-3 record doesn’t dazzle anyone, but his recent hot streak put his ERA below 3.00 for the first time since opening day.

With a rotation in Boston struggling, many wonder why Owens hasn’t had his chance yet. If he continues to pitch well that chance will come sooner rather than later, but the 22-year old lefty has had his command issues this season. In six of his 10 starts he has walked four or more batters, something a big league team will exploit more often then not.

Owens took a step in the right direction Saturday in regards to his walks, pounding the strike zone early and often. Of his 94 pitches, 64 percent of them went for strikes. He was in control through five innings, working well off his fastball and getting many outs with the pitch. He allowed just one three-ball count and had not allowed any walks.

His sixth inning was a different story, as he allowed his three runs including a towering two-run home run from Eugenio Suarez. Following the home run, which came on a 3-1 count, Owens issued his first walk of the night before getting out of trouble. He didn’t factor in the decision as Pawtucket went on to win 5-4. Despite his poor sixth, the team was pleased with how he pitched.

“I felt good aside from a few misfires here and there,” Owens said, “but other than those I felt comfortable going inside and outside. My curve was a plus today and I threw it more than I usually do. The slider was good in key situations and it’s a pitch that’s moving forward for me. I’ve used it sparingly, trying to focus more on fastball command before I overuse it but when I went to it, it felt good.”

“He had more command of the zone,” manager Kevin Boles said. “It was unfortunate for him that he left a couple pitches up that were impacted, but overall I though it was a big improvement for him tonight. His lower half was more in sync and his timing was good with his delivery.”

Pounding the strike zone yielded a season high seven hits from Owens, but he tied his season low with one walk. This also marked the first time Pawtucket has won an Owens start since May 5 at Toledo.

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Tanaka time at McCoy

By Eddie Pannone

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – McCoy Stadium has been seen plenty of Red Sox players graze the field during rehab assignments. On Wednesday, it was a Yankee star that took center stage.

Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka, recovering from a sore elbow and wrist, made his second rehab start for the Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders against the PawSox. After a 41-pitch effort May 21 in which he threw three scoreless innings, Tanaka looked to extend his workload in hopes of a quick return to New York’s rotation.

While he did look healthy in his start, he looked far from being an ace.

Tanaka got off to a rough start in the first, as his first pitch was lined off the right field wall by Jackie Bradley Jr. for a double. Despite loading the bases with no outs, he was able to escape with just one run allowed on a Travis Shaw sacrifice fly. His command was not great, though he was able to fight out of the jam with two strikeouts.

His second inning provided even more hard contact from PawSox hitters. After a walk to Deven Marrero, Humberto Quintero hit an outside fastball hard down the right field line, though was thrown out at second base. A hard ground ball from Mike Miller scored Marrero, bringing Bradley to the plate again. This time, he smashed a Tanaka pitch hard over the RF wall for a home run. The third and final inning of his outing proved to be his best, as he retired the side in order.

Overall, the stuff and command were not there for Tanaka. While topping out at 93 M.P.H., he was not fooling Pawtucket hitters with anything and many pitches were up in the strike zone.

Tanaka, through his interpreter, said after the game that he felt “absolutely fine” despite a less than stellar performance.

“Obviously I wasn’t at my best, missing some spots and giving up hits,” Tanaka said. “I’m just trying to go out and pitch to best of my abilities. There will be ups and downs as you go through the season, but I have to focus on being at my best.”

In regards to where he will pitch next, that decision has not been made yet. If his results were better, there was a good chance that this would be his last rehab outing. While he feels ready to contribute for the Yankees and throw all his pitches without restriction, that decision will not be up to him.

“I’ll see how I feel tomorrow and talk with the manager and trainers, but they will make the decision,” Tanaka said. “I was happy I went 65 pitches and felt strong, plus my slider was much better than last outing.”

Whether at the major league or minor league level, Tanaka will likely be on a pitch count of around 85. The decision will come down to whether the Yankees feel those 85 pitches can help their big league team.

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Time is up on slow start excuse

By Eddie Pannone

I think I’m a pretty patient person when it comes to slow starts in baseball. Early slumps get over analyzed just because they happen early. The same slump can happen in July and no one bats an eye because a player may have hit well up until then. As a point of reference while hitting below .200, I thought Mike Napoli should be allowed to work out of his two month long slump. He had a track record of being streaky, quickly going from tough stretches to carrying an offense. It seems like that is finally paying off for Boston.

So like I said I think I’m pretty patient. However, we are close to June now. At some point we have to accept certain things with this club and not just hope they turn around. The starting rotation problems have been documented and exposed since spring training. The cliché used was that the team had “five aces,” though in reality they had collected a group of solid middle-of-the-rotation guys. Regardless of what you call them, they have all underperformed. Now comes the hard question: why? Each person has a different reason.

Clay Buchholz has always been up and down, and while currently pitching well it would surprise no one if he got lit up in his next outing. Inconsistently from start to start has plagued him his entire career and there are no signs pointing away from this yet. Rick Porcello’s struggles come as a bigger surprise to me than anyone else. Obviously moving from a pitcher friendly park in Detroit to the hitter friendly Fenway doesn’t help (his two worst starts came at Fenway to the Orioles and Angels), but that isn’t everything. Porcello relies heavily on keeping his sinker down, and he when he struggles that pitch stays up. It should be as simple as cleaning that up for him to get on track. Wade Miley may have turned a corner coming over from the National League, as his command has and outings have been much improved. He won’t be an ace, but I have confidence he will be at least a solid pitcher going forward.

If it were up to me, I would continue to roll with these three pitchers going forward. But that still leaves three other pitchers who have made starts for the Sox this year: Justin Masterson, Steven Wright and Joe Kelly.

It is here where my patience has run thin.

Masterson is currently on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, though this was more of a reason just to give him some time off. He did not perform well in many of his starts, showing mediocre stuff and mediocre control. A permanent move to the bullpen would do him and the club a lot of good. Making him a long/situational reliever would allow him to focus less on the length of his outings and more on regaining his form and confidence. It would also let the impressive Matt Barnes to pitch more meaningful innings late in games.

Wright has done a nice job this season filling in for the Sox, but that is really all he is: a fill in. Relying on him every fifth day is a dangerous proposition and one I don’t think they are comfortable with.

Kelly’s struggles are something I think have to be worked out in the minor leagues. There is no question the stuff is there, but poor command and pitch selection have done him in. At this point, it is fair to question how much impact his former catcher in St. Louis Yadier Molina had in his success. Molina is such a gifted game caller and influence on his pitchers that his absence is a legitimate concern. It is clear watching Kelly that his ability to master the art of pitching and pitch selection are lacking. Letting him learn these things in Pawtucket could go a long way in his development.

Make of this what you will, but on Tuesday afternoon the only pitcher taking batting practice (really bunting practice for a potential NL game) was Henry Owens. On the same day Kelly went 1.2 IP allowing seven earned runs, Owens pitched six innings for Pawtucket, allowing just one earned run. Eduardo Rodriguez, who for my money has been the best pitcher for Pawtucket this season, pitched one day before Owens and has also been spotted bunting this season. Should the organization decide to demote Kelly, those two would line up perfectly to replace him.

I don’t think Owens is ready for the big leagues yet, as he still has some command issues I’d like to see worked out. Rodriguez is very close to being ready as his command and stuff have shown he deserves a shot in the bigs. The fact that they line up close with Kelly and that general manager Ben Cherington was present at Owens BP hint at something coming.

Will these moves solve all of the Red Sox problems? No. But luckily in a division that is up for grabs, it doesn’t have to. It just needs to give them a better chance to win.

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Different looks preparing PawSox players

By Eddie Pannone

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – It is nice to win at any level, but Triple-A baseball is all about preparing players for the big leagues. Whether that means young prospects preparing for an extended look at the big league level or veterans looking to regain their form, minor league baseball allows clubs to work on things that can’t be done when trying win on the biggest stage. Look no further than what the PawSox have done in May as an example.

Start with the recent demotion of Allen Craig and Robbie Ross. Both have had success at the MLB level, but both have struggled mightily since being acquired. With expectations high and room for error minimal, it is a challenge for these players to get back on track. That is why being sent to Pawtucket could do them a world of good.

No matter how he hits Craig will receive regular at bats for the PawSox, something that was never the case with Boston. Manager Kevin Boles said that he will hit in the heart of the order and play left field, right field, and first base for however long he is with the team.

“The main thing for me to focus on isn’t the surprise of getting sent down,” Craig said, “but the fact that I have an opportunity to play ball and get everyday at bats.”

For Ross, being in Triple-A will allow him to pitch multiple innings on any given night without necessarily worrying about results.

“We’ll probably use him with a little bit more length so he can throw all his pitches,” Boles said. “We don’t have a set schedule, but he threw shorter innings up in Boston and in order to get in his full mix we may extend his outings.

Rusney Castillo is the opposite of these guys, as he is still fighting to show he can be an impact major leaguer. He will get every chance to prove himself after signing a 7-year, $72.5 million deal with club, though the start of 2015 hasn’t exactly gone as planned. An oblique injury cost him time in spring training and a shoulder injury cost him time in April. Now healthy, Boles and the PawSox are trying to ease him back.

“This is kind of his spring training because of all the time he missed,” Boles said. “We are just trying to get him settled in and comfortable.”

While trying to get him settled, Boles said the team will mix up their usage with him. He will hit in a variety of spots in the order and may play all over the outfield in order to increase his major league versatility. Versatility has been a key for the PawSox all season, as they have tried almost every position player at a new spot.

Also of major league note, pitchers Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez were spotted taking batting practice before Tuesday’s game. The organization wants the young pitchers to practice bunting should they need to do it Boston. This doesn’t mean that those two are on the fast track to Boston as the team is preparing all pitchers just in case they are needed.

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