|ESPN.com: BlogsColumns||[Print without images]|
BOSTON -- The bunt could not have been executed any better, the left-handed hitting Colby Rasmus quickly sliding his hands up the barrel of his bat and gently pushing the ball to the left of the pitcher's mound. Brandon Snyder, playing third base for the Boston Red Sox, had no play. Neither did the catcher, Ryan Lavarnway.
Rasmus, a swift runner, had to like his chances of reaching first base safely -- until the 6-foot-7 pitcher on the mound sprung into action. Displaying surprising agility, Red Sox left-hander Andrew Miller broke quickly toward the ball, barehanded it cleanly, whirled and fired a strike to first, the ball arriving with Rasmus's foot in midair, about to land on the bag.
|Andrew Miller had a 1.46 ERA in 11 appearances in June.|
"Honestly, that's one of the best plays I've ever seen a left-handed pitcher make," said Snyder, who has had limited big league exposure but, at 26, has played in pro ball since 2005. "Considering how good a bunt it was, and he comes in and barehands it and he's 6-foot-7. This guy's not a little guy.
"Him and I were both screaming out there when he made that play. That was a play that saved the game. He can downplay it all he wants, it was great."
Miller has aided and abetted the Sox with regularity this season, but even he smiled in the retelling of this rare demonstration of his fielding ability in Sunday's 5-4 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.
"I like to think myself as pretty athletic," he said. "It was a good bunt, and it was just one of those things you go as quick as you can. I don't know how close it was; it looked really close from my angle.
"That's all the range and everything I've got. Just close your eyes and throw in the general direction. Fortunately, it got there in time."
As notable as that play was, the real attention-grabber this season for Miller has been his exemplary work on the mound. His 1.46 ERA in 11 June appearances was the lowest among all Red Sox pitchers in the month, one in which he has remained a constant while the fortunes of some other Boston relievers have risen and fallen.
And he has kept the ball in the ballpark. While Sox pitchers gave up 36 home runs in June, a total exceeded only by Baltimore (41) and Arizona (40), Miller gave up just one long ball, a home run by James Loney of the Rays on June 10 that cut a two-run Sox lead in half.
The trend of giving up home runs has been acute of late for the Sox's pen: When Jose Bautista of the Jays homered off Koji Uehara in the ninth inning Sunday, it was the eighth home run allowed by a Sox reliever in the past 15 games. Andrew Bailey gave up four in that span and lost the closer's job; Junichi Tazawa yielded two, including a two-run homer to Bautista that broke a 2-2 tie Saturday.
Miller, meanwhile, has yet to give up an extra-base hit in situations identified as "late and close." Opposing hitters are batting just .114 (4-for-35) against him in those circumstances.
Despite the flurry of long balls, the Sox still were able to finish with a 17-11 record in June and are 16 games above .500 (50-34) as they wrap up a nine-game homestand with three games against the San Diego Padres.
The bullpen has been stretched because of the unavailability of Clay Buchholz and the extended slump of left-hander Jon Lester, which has made the work of Miller and fellow left-hander Craig Breslow all the more important.
Both Miller and Breslow have spurned the identity of left-handed specialist; Miller has gotten more than three outs seven times this season; Breslow, who began the season on the disabled list with tendinitis in his shoulder and was not activated until May 6, has had six such appearances.
The reason manager John Farrell has been able to extend them is their ability to retire right-handed hitters. Miller, especially, has been dominant against righties, holding them to a .155 average (9-for-58), with 24 strikeouts and 12 walks in 73 plate appearances.
A former No. 1 draft pick, Miller always has had terrific stuff, with a fastball that touches 97 mph and a slider that can be devastating. The difference this season is better command: Opposing hitters, no longer able to wait out Miller, are chasing pitches out of the strike zone at the highest rate of his career (32.7 percent). He also is inducing nearly double the number of ground balls to fly balls (2.40 to 1.28), reversing a trend earlier in his career.
And Greg Holland of the Royals is the only American League pitcher striking out batters at a higher rate than Miller, 15 K's per nine innings to Miller's 14.09.
Those are closer numbers, and the day may come when Miller has shown a sufficient ability to harness the bouts of wildness that have plagued him in the past to get his chance.
"It's all about consistency of command; he has all the stuff in the world to be a closer," Farrell said the middle of last month. "Consistency of command is what separates those guys that repeatedly finish out the ninth inning."
Until he was burned by Bautista on Sunday, Uehara had been exceptional. The necessary fluctuation of roles brought on by the season-ending injury to Joel Hanrahan and Bailey's struggles has impacted the consistent excellence that the bullpen exhibited early in the season, but Farrell remains convinced that the pen is a strength of his club. More innings out of the rotation, as well as a return to form by Bailey, even in a setup role, will go a long way in restoring stability.
"We've got a really good group of guys," Miller said. "Everybody's trying to do their part, whatever that is, whatever is asked of us. We've had some moving parts lately.
"But we're all capable of getting lefties and righties out. That's huge. That allows them to use us in situations where Brez and I go more than an inning. A lot of times lefties get cornered over that 'lefties only, lefty specialist' kind of thing. The fact that we've shown we can handle more than that is a big help.
"Everybody is trying to pick up what they can and let the next guy come in and do their job."
And if that means making the occasional web gem, that works too.