Commentary

More than a pinch of success

Mike Carp, Jonny Gomes head group of potent hitters off Red Sox bench

Updated: September 13, 2013, 12:43 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The expression is that you "make do" in a pinch, as if the best you can hope for is to get by with what you have at hand, survive the moment, and wait for better days.

That hardly begins to explain, however, what Red Sox pinch hitters have done this season, turning a generally thankless job into a platform for star turns. The latest was taken by Mike Carp, who hit a pinch grand slam in the 10th inning Wednesday night and has the sore chin to show for it, his beard having been pulled a couple dozen times by jubilant teammates in the Red Sox dugout.

[+] EnlargeMike Carp
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaMike Carp's game-winning grand slam was the Red Sox's seventh pinch-hit home run of the season, tying a club record.
They nearly did it again in the ninth inning Thursday night, Carp drawing a four-pitch walk before Will Middlebrooks, in his first pinch appearance this season, scorched a ball that was caught by third baseman Evan Longoria. Dustin Pedroia then popped out for the last out of Tampa Bay's 4-3 win.

No one envies a pinch hitter, not even a pitcher.

"That's not an easy thing to do, be a pinch hitter, sit around all game and not play, then come out there, put the bat on the ball, and give us runs on the board with one swing," pitcher Ryan Dempster said Wednesday night after Carp made 7-3 winners out of the Sox.

And yet the Red Sox have been doing it at a rate almost unknown in franchise history. Carp's home run was the seventh hit by Sox pinch hitters, tying the club record set in 1953. (The Red Sox on Thursday amended incorrect information in the team's media guide, which listed the '53 team as hitting six pinch home runs.) But the years don't even compare. The '53 team played in the days before the DH, when pinch hitters were routinely sent to the plate to bat for pitchers.

This is only the ninth time in the DH era (post-1973) that an American League team has had seven or more pinch homers. The record is held by the Orioles, who hit 11 in 1982. The '87 Angels and '84 White Sox hit 9, the '84 Orioles hit 8, and the '91 Orioles, '86 Yankees, '80 Rangers and '91 Orioles all hit 7.

Red Sox pitchers, meanwhile, have not allowed a home run all season to a pinch hitter.

The Sox have hit two game-winning pinch home runs. Jonny Gomes hit a walk-off at Fenway Park on July 3 to beat the Padres, and Carp hit the first pitch he saw Wednesday for the first extra-inning grand slam by a Red Sox player since Dwight Evans took Dennis Eckersley deep with the bases loaded on May 19, 1989, in Oakland. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Carp was the first in Sox history to have a pinch-hit grand slam in extra innings.

"To see him flourish in the role he's in currently is a testament to not only him accepting the role," Sox manager John Farrell said, "but the way he stays prepared and ready to go when called upon."

Gomes has four pinch home runs, one shy of the club record set by Hall of Famer Joe Cronin in 1943. Unofficially, Cronin had 42 at-bats as a pinch hitter that season; Gomes has 18. Carp has two pinch home runs in 17 at-bats, while David Ortiz has the other, in two pinch-hit at-bats.

What does it mean to the everyday guys to see a player come off the bench and deliver?

"It's awesome," said Pedroia, whose leadoff walk in the 10th started Wednesday's winning rally. "You work hard all game and one guy comes in and wins it for you. It's pretty cool, man. You take a deep breath afterward. It's nice."

First-year hitting coach Greg Colbrunn credits Farrell's roster management for the high success rate of Sox pinch hitters.

"John has done a real good job with the guys coming off the bench, getting those guys some at-bats so that their timing and rhythm is still pretty good," Colbrunn said. "But what they've done is pretty special."

Pinch hitters have done their part in the Red Sox winning 22 games in their last at-bat, tied with the Royals for the most in the American League. And it hasn't been just with the long ball; entering play Thursday, Sox pinch hitters had a slash line of .266/.373/.656/1.030, the highest OPS for an AL team's pinch hitters in the DH era. The league average OPS for pinch hitters this season is .653, and the 2000 Rangers are the only other team to have a pinch OPS higher than 1.000 (1.006).

"It starts with good players," Farrell said. "We're able to manage their playing time because we have depth that we can go to and not have a huge drop-off in capabilities and performance.

"I think that's the reason why in September we're trending up in terms of offensive performance, because we've been able to keep guys fresh. And in a day and age where the drugs are cleaned up, rest is that much more important and depth of roster becomes that much more valuable."

Carp, who was the last player in spring training to be informed he had made the club, is no different than anyone else in the big leagues. He'd love to be an everyday player and hopes that his performance as a part-timer (.314/.374/.564) will translate into an opportunity next season somewhere. "Why not here?" he says.

But he's not blind to the rewards that come with shining in the role in which he has been cast -- a trip to the postseason that would be the first of his career. "I feel real comfortable here," he said.

And why shouldn't he? As Ortiz noted to reporters Wednesday night, "To come in and do what he did, you only see that in the movies."

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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