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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Surprised Craig staying positive

By Eddie Pannone

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – To say Allen Craig’s time in the Boston organization has been disappointing isn’t exactly a breaking news story. Acquired with Joe Kelly as part of the John Lackey trade last year, Craig has hit .130 in 53 games with the Red Sox and never had the chance for consistent playing time. His frustrations reached a new level Sunday when the team optioned him to Triple-A.

“You could say I was surprised,” Craig said before his first game with Pawtucket on Tuesday. “Going back down to the minor leagues I was a little surprised by that, but it is what it is.”

With Jackie Bradley Jr. earning his way back up to Boston and Shane Victorino being activated, Craig was going to see even less at bats than he had before. Now he will immediately slot into the heart of Pawtucket’s order where he can play everyday, something the team feels will help him get back on track.

“He is going to be in the middle of our order and have everyday at bats for however long he is here,” manager Kevin Boles said. “He’ll play first base, left field and right field, but we want to talk to him about where he feels most comfortable so he can settle in.”

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

While disappointed he isn’t helping the major league club, Craig knows he can still produce and is doing his best to remain positive.

“I’m always going to remain professional,” he said. “This game can be hard at times and everyone knows that. You have to handle situations the right way and I always try to keep that in mind. The results haven’t been there and I acknowledge that, but I also have perspective that it has only been a short window of my career that I’ve struggled.”

Predicting where Craig fits in the organization is hard given their glut of outfielders. The team has reportedly tried to trade him, though that seems unlikely now given that his trade value is at an all-time low. Using him as a platoon player has not worked so far, but they may look to 2016 and see him as their first baseman (Mike Napoli is a free agent after this year and isn’t doing so hot himself).

Whatever their plans, the organization will give him every chance to succeed and he will do his best to stay positive through his struggles.

“Sulking about it isn’t going to do anything and no one wants to hear about it anyways,” Craig said. “I’ve just got to keep a positive attitude and play the game the best I can.”

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Rodriguez, Johnson off to hot start with PawSox

By Eddie Pannone

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – It is no secret that the Boston Red Sox pitching staff has been less than stellar so far in 2015. With up-and-down performances from all five starters, patience is running thin as the team falls near the bottom of the standings. If the organization decides it is time to move on from one of them, which won’t be easy based on the contracts involved, the team would look towards a young Pawtucket staff for help.

The question becomes who. If the team is in need of a spot start, it seems knuckleballer Steven Wright would be the man. If they wanted to try someone out for an extended period, then one of their young prospects might get a chance.

Top pitching prospect Henry Owens has generated plenty of buzz since he was drafted by Boston, but rushing the 22-year old to the big leagues wouldn’t be wise. Owens has shown shaky command so far in his first full Triple-A season, walking at least three batters in each of his first four starts. While he has good stuff, the lack of an overpowering fastball makes his command even more important. It would be better if he could work through that in the minors rather than in the midst of a potential pennant race.

Two of the more likely candidates are Brian Johnson and Eduardo Rodriguez. Johnson, 24, has had a very good start to his season with the exception of one dud on May 3. Opponents are hitting around .200 against him while he strikes out more than a batter per inning. Rodriguez, 22, has been arguably the best PawSox pitcher in 2015 with a sub 2.00 ERA most of the season. He boasts a K/BB ratio around 11:1 and has shown really good control of his changeup and 95 M.P.H. fastball. He would likely be ahead of Johnson on the depth chart for the simple reason that he is already on the 40-man roster.

“When you can throw 94-96 M.P.H. from the left side consistently that’s a pretty good weapon,” manager Kevin Boles said earlier in April. “He keeps the ball down and keeps the defense involved. We want him establishing the fastball.”

Moving away from pitching, Boston’s injuries to the top two catchers on the depth chart (Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan) has led to the promotion of Blake Swihart. He has been a key cog in the PawSox offense, but without him Jackie Bradley Jr. has become the team’s best hitter. Bradley has made adjustments to his swing that have yielded great results, as he is stroking consistent line drives, striking out less, and hitting pitches he hasn’t hit over the last two years. While he is an afterthought in Boston’s outfield, his value is slowly rising back up to the point where he could be a nice trade chip for the team down the road.

“There’s a lot less moving parts in his swing now,” manager Kevin Boles said. “He gets his lower half established and has better pitch recognition. He is doing a lot of things well right now.”

It hasn’t been an easy go for some of the team’s other young hitters. Garin Cecchini, Rusney Castillo and Deven Marrero have yet to hit there stride, but injuries may have slowed them down upon their return to the lineup. Look for them to make progress and get back on track in the upcoming weeks once they get consistent at-bats.

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Bradley finding his swing early on

By Eddie Pannone

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – It seems like a long time ago that Jackie Bradley Jr. was lighting up spring training and capturing Red Sox fans attention as an up-and-coming prospect. In reality it has been just over two years, but so much has happened in his short career.

Bradley, now 25, was up and down between Boston and Pawtucket in 2013 and 2014. He struggled mightily at the plate, hitting below .200 in both MLB seasons while striking out in about a quarter of his at bats. While he played centerfield as well as anyone in baseball, the offensive struggles were just too overwhelming for the organization to leave him at the big league level.

The Red Sox acquired outfield depth by signing Rusney Castillo and Hanley Ramirez (not to mention the emergence of Mookie Betts) so Bradley has essentially become an afterthought with the club.

But don’t count him out just yet.

Bradley has made adjustments to his swing by changing the positioning of his hands. So far in 2015, his hard work has shown. It is easy to look at his early season average of .357 and tell he’s hitting better, but these adjustments have shown themselves outside of the numbers.

Saturday afternoon Bradley cleaned out two inside fastballs for hits. One was a groundball through the right side and one was a shot up the middle. It doesn’t appear like much, but those were the types of pitches he struck out on last season. Instead of getting locked up by them, he has made contact and put the ball in play. Having his hands in better hitting position surely has helped him do this while also dropping his strikeout rate about 10 percent.

“There’s a lot less moving parts in his swing now,” manager Kevin Boles said. “He gets his lower half established and has better pitch recognition. He is doing a lot of things well right now.”

The bottom line is Bradley may never be a great MLB hitter, but he will always be a great defender. His glove is game changing and as a centerfielder that is extremely valuable. Even if he hits between .235-.250, that would be enough to warrant him being on a big league roster. Hopefully for him, this adjustment can help him do just that.

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Rodriguez continues to roll in Triple-A

By Eddie Pannone

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – At the 2014 trade deadline, the Red Sox made noise by trading away several big names. Players like Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew were all moved, but instead of aiming for prospects the organization targeted Major League ready players like Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig and Joe Kelly.

The exception came in the trade of Andrew Miller to the Orioles, a team competing for a World Series title. Miller was the best relief pitcher on the market and as such commanded a hefty price. The Orioles were willing to pay that price by giving up 22-year-old lefty starter Eduardo Rodriguez.

Rodriguez was the third ranked prospect in the Orioles’ system but was coming off a shaky first half that featured a knee sprain and inconsistent command. Following the trade to Boston he showed why he was a highly ranked prospect by dominating for Double-A Portland and helping Pawtucket win the Governors’ Cup at the end of the season.

Now a top pitching prospect with Boston, Rodriguez has the tools to start at the big league level with a three pitch mix of fastball, changeup and slider. This is his first full year of Triple-A and he’s off to a fast start. He pitched into the sixth inning in his first outing, striking out four and walking no one. He allowed one early run but settled down to retire the last 11 batters he faced.

He followed that performance up with a gem on Saturday. Rodriguez showed off his good fastball, consistently getting it up to 95 M.P.H. and topping out at 99 M.P.H. He picked up his first win of the young campaign going six innings allowing two earned runs on just four hits and one walk while striking out five.

“We want him to establish the fastball, that’s what we live by,” manager Kevin Boles said. “When you can throw 94-96 M.P.H. from the left side consistently that’s a pretty good weapon. He kept the ball down and kept the defense involved. I liked his pace.”

Rodriguez looks very comfortable in the Boston organization experiencing almost nothing but success. As he continues to grow and learn this season, it isn’t out of the question he could make his MLB debut later this year and stick in Boston’s 2016 rotation.

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Fisher Cats Feature: K.C. Hobson

by PATRICK CAVANAUGH

(MANCHESTER, N.H.)—K.C. Hobson has spent the past five seasons trying to make a name for him and find his way to the top of the Toronto Blue Jays system. After splitting

K.C. Hobson (courtesy of Minor League Baseball)

his time between Lansing and Dunedin over the past five seasons, he capped out the 2014 year in the Granite State with the Fisher Cats and is back to start off the 2015 season.

Hobson, 24, is the son of Butch Hobson, a former player and coach in the Boston Red Sox organization and a New England sports icon. He was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 6th round of the 2009 MLB June Amateur Draft, shortly after graduating from Stockdale High School in Bakersfield, California. In his five years with the Blue Jays organization, Hobson has displayed consistent numbers with a batting average that usually hovers between .200 and .250.  Although his average may not stick out, Hobson is a strong defensive asset and a reliable glove at first base.

This season, K.C. Hobson is off to a hot start in New Hampshire. After just five games, Hobson carries an average of .389. He hit a homerun in the Fisher Cats’ first two regular season games, and also went yard in an exhibition game with the Southern New Hampshire University Penmen on April 7th, two days before the season began.  Aside from his homerun tally, Hobson has 7 hits, 4 RBI, 1 walk, and only 1 strikeout.

For live updates from nightly Fisher Cats games and to track K.C. Hobson all season, follow Patrick Cavanaugh on Twitter (@pcava12).

Patrick Cavanaugh covers professional baseball for BostonSportsU18.com. He can be reached at pcavanaugh@bostonsportsu18.com.

 

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Fisher Cats Off to Hot Start; Play Doubleheader Today

by PATRICK CAVANAUGH

(MANCHESTER, N.H.)—The New Hampshire Fisher Cats are looking like a hot commodity as they finish up their first series of the 2015 season.

The Fisher Cats had a lot of room for improvement after finishing the season in 5th place in the Eastern Division with a record of 66-76 last year. The current roster is a familiar squad, as 21 of the 26 players listed have worn a Fisher Cats uniform before this season. Some of the more popular names include: Jon Berti, Ryan Schimpf, Dustin Antolin, Andy Burns, and New Hampshire native Kevin Nolan.

The Fisher Cats’ season is officially underway now, but there was quite a commotion when an early-April snowstorm covered the field and spectator area with enough snow and ice to force the team to push Opening Night from Thursday to Friday. Although it was an unfortunate happening. Fisher Cats President and General Manager acknowledged the situation by saying, “Despite the best efforts of our grounds crew and operations team today, you just can’t fight Mother Nature,” according to a Fisher Cats press release.

As for performance on the field, the Fisher Cats have looked solid so far. On Opening Night, the Fishers shut out the Rock Cats 6-0 after a stunning performance from K.C. Hobson (homered), Matt Newman (3 hits), and the pitching staff was incredible. The starter, Matt Boyd, struck out nine batters in his 4+ innings of work, and his relievers did a nice job supplementing his performance, as the team of four pitchers fanned a total of seventeen batters.

With a record of 2-0, the Fisher Cats host the New Britain Rock Cats on Sunday afternoon for a series finale doubleheader. RHP Casey Lawrence will get the nod for New Hampshire in game one, while RHP Shane Carle will take the hill for the New Britain. The first contest will start at 1:35, and the second game will follow approximately 30 minutes after the last pitch is thrown.

For live updates throughout the day, follow Patrick Cavanaugh (@pcava12) and BSU18 Baseball (@BSU18Baseball) on Twitter.

Patrick Cavanaugh covers professional baseball for BostonSportsU18.com. He can be reached at pcavanaugh@bostonsportsu18.com.

 

 

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