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TORONTO -- Boston Red Sox fans heard plenty about Scott Downs leading up to the trading deadline, and Tuesday night they got to see the Toronto Blue Jays' 34-year-old left-hander for themselves.
He was impressive, facing four Red Sox batters and not allowing a ball out of the infield. He induced Victor Martinez, who has murdered lefties this season, to roll into a double play to end the seventh and struck out David Ortiz to start the eighth before giving way to Shawn Camp.
It was the kind of performance that makes you wonder whether the Sox should have given in to the demands made by Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos and surrendered the prospects that would have cinched the deal. In his 50th appearance, Downs lowered his ERA to 2.14, and lefties are batting just .169 against him (10-for-59). He has been automatic.
|Felix Doubront worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth, but yielded a tying home run to Toronto's Jose Bautista in the seventh.|
But there was another left-handed reliever who worked here Tuesday night, and while he doesn't have Downs' pedigree, he was impressive too. With Toronto runners at first and second with two outs in the sixth inning and the Sox clinging to a 5-4 lead, Boston manager Terry Francona summoned rookie Felix Doubront to replace Daisuke Matsuzaka.
The 22-year-old Venezuelan born in the town of Carabobo -- which in Spanish means "silly face" -- came to the mound with a no-nonsense expression and a killer curveball. He looked to be on his way out of trouble when Fred Lewis hit a grounder to shortstop Marco Scutaro, but when Scutaro saw second baseman Jed Lowrie was a late arrival to the bag, he double-clutched. His throw was late, the bases were loaded, and to the plate came Travis Snider, the highly regarded 22-year-old outfielder who had blasted a three-run home run off Matsuzaka in his previous at-bat.
This was only Doubront's second relief appearance in the big leagues. The first had been a mopup inning against the Yankees. On deck was Jose Bautista, who leads the majors in home runs.
Was this any place to stick a kid on a hot August night in a playoff race?
"You saw we were not afraid to use him,'' Francona said.
Doubront had his own answer. He struck out Snider on three pitches, the last a curveball so crooked, it made Gotti look honest by comparison.
"His stuff, his poise are off the charts,'' Francona said.
Just to remind you that there's still a learning curve here, in the seventh inning Doubront left a fastball over the plate to Bautista, who drove it into the left-field stands for a game-tying home run, his 35th of the season. In fairness to the kid, Bautista has been treating everyone the same way. This was the 11th consecutive series in which he has homered, a club record.
But even then, the kid didn't get rattled, going popup, roller to first and whiff to end the inning. And when Mike Lowell homered off Camp to break a 5-5 tie, Doubront had his first win as a Sox reliever.
Which served as a tidy reminder that as surely as Downs would help, especially with Hideki Okajima ineffective and now hurt, Theo Epstein clings to his best young kids for a reason. And you can be reasonably certain that Doubront was on a short list of names that the Jays were demanding back.
"There are few and far rookies that can come up in a pennant race,'' Jonathan Papelbon said last month, "unless their name is Jonathan Papelbon.''
Papelbon, who closed out the Jays on Tuesday night, signaled his future as Boston's closer with an electric debut as a 24-year-old in 2005, helping the Sox return to the playoffs before they were bounced in the first round by the White Sox. Like Doubront, Papelbon was a converted starter.
But while Papelbon is the template for the Red Sox, other teams have successfully rolled the dice on rookies in hot spots. A 21-year-old Joba Chamberlain was a sensation with the Yankees in 2007, striking out 34 batters in 24 innings and holding opponents to a single earned run.
Neftali Feliz was 21 when he struck out 39 batters in 31 innings while posting a 1.74 ERA after the Rangers called him up from the minors last season.
And perhaps the greatest payoff by a kid reliever this decade was delivered by Francisco Rodriguez in 2002. K-Rod wasn't called up from Double-A until mid-September, was allowed to be added to the Angels' postseason roster because of an injury to another pitcher, and was a playoff revelation, winning five (five!) games for the Angels as they won the first World Series in franchise history.
These are the success stories. There have been plenty of kids who have flamed out as well (Craig Hansen, hello). But on a hot August night in Canada, the Sox took the measure of Felix Doubront, and liked what they saw.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.