TORONTO -- The rumor mill was churning all offseason long about the Boston Red Sox rotation and what the team would do to reinforce a pitching staff that faltered badly last September. Would the Red Sox trade for a powerful young arm like Gio Gonzalez? Sign a veteran free agent like Roy Oswalt? Or, would they stick to lower-priced veterans to fill out the back end of the rotation?
While the Sox did pick up a number of those lower-tier veterans, the answer to their pitching problem was already in their system. Spring training dark horse Felix Doubront made the rotation, and he's become the team's most reliable starter through two months of the 2012 season.
"When you talk about a guy winning six games by June 2 when he hadn't been in a rotation before, I can't say that's what I expected," said Boston manager Bobby Valentine. "I expected quality, I just didn't know what kind of length he'd be able to give us."
Doubront had just 23 major league games (three of them starts) to his name entering the year. But he has been a steady hand in amassing a 6-2 record and 3.75 ERA through 11 starts, and he has thrown at least five innings in all but one of those outings.
The left-hander matched his season-high with 6 1/3 innings pitched in Saturday's win over the Blue Jays. Doubront allowed three runs (two earned) on seven hits, while striking out seven and walking just one. It was the type of performance that the Red Sox have come to expect from Doubront, who has delivered the consistency that Boston has lacked elsewhere in the rotation.
"Every start he's been solid," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. "It's the same thing every time, he doesn't trick anybody, he just has great stuff and good command. He's just going out there basically like a bulldog.
"He's had confidence from the start but definitely the more he gets comfortable the better he gets. You're seeing a guy who's kind of growing up in front of us. He's going to be an unbelievable pitcher for a long time."
Perhaps what was most impressive about Doubront's start against Toronto was that the 24-year-old was able to pitch effectively despite not quite being in top form. Doubront said his struggles came from trying to be too precise in attacking hitters and settled down by adopting a Nuke LaLoosh-esque approach.
"I just throw the ball without thinking too much about mechanics," Doubront said. "Sometimes I felt like I couldn't follow through all my pitches in the first inning but I started to make adjustments. ... Stay back, just throw the ball, don't think too much."
Doubront allowed two solo homers, to Jeff Mathis and Jose Bautista, but prevented the Blue Jays from developing a proper rally. Doubront got Colby Rasmus to pop out with the bases loaded to end the third inning. After committing a fielding error in the fourth, Doubront gave up back-to-back singles that led to an unearned run, but with two runners on, the southpaw induced a ground ball to end the threat.
"When we had big situations when guys were in scoring position, he did a great job of making his pitches, getting the grounders when he needed to and throwing the heater when he needed to as well," Saltalamacchia said.
Doubront now has a 2.72 ERA over his past six starts, but the stat that Doubront is most pleased with is the fact that Boston has won eight of Doubront's 11 games.
"The team can score a lot of runs and I can go more than five innings and keep the score down," Doubront said. "I'm working for this every day and every time I go on the mound I try to give 100 percent no matter what. Just try to win the games."
While Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have had their ups and downs this season, their track records still mark them as the aces of the Red Sox staff, even though Doubront has been the team's best pitcher on a start-for-start basis. While Doubront isn't an ace yet and, realistically, isn't or won't be expected to perform to that level, he is certainly proving himself worthy of a long-term rotation spot.
"He has room for improvement," Valentine said. "He's done great so far ... but I think he's going to learn more about this league and more about himself and continue to improve. He's got a dynamite fastball."
Not bad for a pitcher who was essentially a backup plan going into spring training.
"One meeting during the winter when everyone was being talked about, Ben [GM Ben Cherington] or someone from his department said, "Hey, [Doubront] is out of options and if he doesn't make our team, he's going to make some team and be in their rotation eventually,'" Valentine recalled. "Right at that time I thought, why not our team?"