- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK — There remains work to be done. New president of baseball operations David Dombrowski, who plans to be here this weekend to see the Boston Red Sox visit the New York Mets for the first time since 2001, made it clear when he was hired that the Sox will be looking for a top-of-the-rotation starter.
"Normally, if you’re going to have a world championship club, you need to have a No. 1 type of guy," Dombrowski said.
But while the Red Sox, like so many other clubs, might cast covetous eyes at the type of arms the Mets will run out to the Citi Field mound this weekend — Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, in that order — the much maligned Sox staff is offering mounting evidence that the future is not as bleak as it once appeared.
One example: The Mets, who have won their last seven games and hold a 6½ game lead in the National League East, have seen their starters hold opponents to two runs or fewer in 15 of 24 games this month. That’s hardly a surprise.
This might be, however: Red Sox starters in 23 games this month have held opponents to two runs or fewer the same number of times, 15.
Two major-league scouts who were in Chicago this week came away raving about Joe Kelly and Rick Porcello, who have ranked as two of the team’s biggest disappointments in 2015. “I saw Kelly in May and I couldn’t believe the difference,’’ one scout said after Kelly held the White Sox Monday night to two runs in 7⅓ innings, his longest start this season. “He was night and day with his command. He looked like a No. 2 [starter]."
On Wednesday, Porcello shut out the White Sox over seven innings in his first start since going on the disabled list Aug. 2. “All I’ve heard all year is how bad he’s been,’’ another scout said. “He was fantastic tonight.’’
Sox starters collectively have a 4.01 ERA this month, and while the rotation’s 4.72 ERA overall remains the American League’s worst (the Mets’ 3.41 ERA is the fourth-best in the majors), their work of late portends the possibility of better days ahead.
Rookie Henry Owens, who faces Harvey Friday night, went eight innings and held the Kansas City Royals to one earned run in his last start. Kelly, who pitches Saturday, has won five straight starts and is 4-0 with a 1.82 ERA in his last four. Left-hander Wade Miley, scheduled to start Sunday afternoon, has had 14 starts in which he has held opponents to two runs or fewer.
Rookie Eduardo Rodriguez, who has shown flashes of brilliance, was skipped this weekend, the Sox intent on limiting his workload. Knuckleballer Steven Wright, who turns 31 on Sunday, had held opponents to two runs or fewer in each of his last three starts before sustaining a concussion in a freak batting-practice accident. Wright went to see concussion specialist Dr. Micky Collins in Pittsburgh on Thursday, as he has been dealing with balance issues, according to interim manager Torey Lovullo.
Porcello came away from Wednesday night’s start feeling that during the time he was out with what the club called triceps soreness, he might have figured out how he’d strayed away from what had made him successful with the Tigers.
“It wasn’t anything that I could foresee happening,” Porcello said. “I was throwing some pretty good four-seam fastballs early on in the year and it was a viable weapon for me, and in turn it kind of led to me getting away from doing what I do well, which is sink the ball.
“I kind of came to the realization that I need to throw sinkers primarily and then occasionally throw a four-seamer. Not 50-50 or anything like that.”
Wednesday night, Porcello threw 51 sinkers compared to 14 four-seamed fastballs, and of those 65 pitches he threw 51 for strikes, including 20 of 26 first-pitch strikes. In his last start before going on the DL, also against the White Sox, Porcello lasted just two innings and was knocked around for 10 hits and five earned runs. In that start, he threw 20 four-seamers to 28 sinkers.
But on July 24, pitching against his former team in Detroit, Porcello showed how effective his four-seamer could be. He threw 41 four-seamers to 20 sinkers and held the Tigers to a run on seven hits.
The scout who was so impressed by Porcello on Wednesday night said his next start should offer a better indication of whether the right-hander is back on track. “Let’s see how he bounces back,’’ the scout said.
It’s worth noting that headed into 2016, Miley will be 29, Porcello and Kelly 28. Owens and Rodriguez will be 23 (Rodriguez will turn 23 on April 7). Clay Buchholz, if the Sox pick up his option, will be 32. Add an ace on top of this group and it’s not hard to imagine real progress.
A group that fell short of the bravado expressed this spring (“five aces”) is developing some much-needed confidence.
“It’s always good to pitch confident,” Kelly said. “Even when it wasn’t going good, you’ve always got to be confident out there. Don’t let the other team know that you’re down or trying to find something.
“It’s been fun to watch. We’ve been throwing up a lot of runs out there and playing good defense. It makes it easy on me to go out there and throw strikes and keep the lead.”