Tony Pena Jr., right, won 9 games for Pawtucket after starting the season in the bullpen. (Jillian Souza photo)
PAWTUCKET â€“ Want to truly understand why the Pawtucket Red Sox are playing meaningful games in September for the first time in three years and are winners of the I.L. North for the first time since 2003? Here are several items that stand out based on the observations of this particular scribe.
1). Run prevention
Theo Epstein addressed such a theory during his infamous â€śbridge yearâ€ť speech two winters ago. By surrounding the pitchers with Gold Glove-caliber fielders, the Boston general manager chose to err on the side of defense carrying the day, which in turn would aid the pitchers tremendously.
Run prevention turned out to be a colossal bust for the 2010 Red Sox. The same cannot be said for the 2011 edition of the PawSox. The club is on target to finish second in the I.L. in ERA (3.58 entering Sunday) and first in WHIP (1.26). Such stats can be attributed to the pitchers simply doing their job of recording outs, but ask any of the staff members and theyâ€™ll regale you with tales of the dazzling play of shortstop Jose Iglesias and centerfielder Che-Hsuan Lin was extremely beneficial to the cause.
Iglesias, the flashy yet cool-under-pressure phenom, wouldnâ€™t hesitate to show off his quick hands. His ability to react instantly to the play can be traced to the 148 double plays the PawSox have turned with two left in the regular season. (One more will set a single-season franchise record.)
â€śItâ€™s great, especially late in the game when itâ€™s tied. We get a huge double play and itâ€™s fun,â€ť Iglesias said. â€śWe get a double play and itâ€™s less pitches for the pitcher to throw and itâ€™s better for the team.â€ť
Linâ€™s defense has been top-notch since arriving in Pawtucket in late May. Blessed with a rocket for a right arm and deer-like reflexes, the 22-year-old from Taiwan fits the definition of a pitcherâ€™s best friend. Itâ€™s too bad that thereâ€™s no means to measure the UZR of a minor-league player, as Lin figures to have compiled an impressive total based on the number of shots heâ€™s tracked down in the gap.
As for his arm, Lin has thrown out nine baserunners this season, tops on the PawSox. Collectively the team has gunned down 28 runners.
2). Saving the day
All discussions end with Pawtucketâ€™s bullpen regarding the clubâ€™s backbone. This unit has tossed out the life preserver on many occasions as manager Arnie Beyler would often turn to his bullpen mid-game and as a unit ask them to work anywhere from three to four innings.
The bullpen produced eventual starters Tony Pena Jr. and Matt Fox, yet by and large the group did not skip a beat. Beyeler and pitching coach Rich Sauveur could take comfort in knowing that whenever the bullpen door swung open, the job was in trustworthy hands.
Save for Michael Bowden closing out games, the PawSox stayed away from handing out specific roles. Scott Atchison and the recently departed Jason Rice were not part of the setup crew. Tommy Hottovy, Randy Williams and Hideki Okajima were not asked to just get left-handed batters out.
â€śThere are few situations that we havenâ€™t been in and we all feel comfortable in the roles weâ€™re put in,â€ť said Hottovy. â€śWe have a lot of interchangeable parts. We have guys who can go from closing one game to coming in to get two guys the next game. The next game you could be a long guy.â€ť
The stat sheet reads the PawSox have recorded 31 holds, the second fewest in the International League. Clearly this is a sum that deserves some explaining, as the saying â€śthe ends donâ€™t justify the meansâ€ť clearly applies with this grouping.
3). Better late than never
How can a team that ranks second-from-the-bottom in batting average (.253) sit tied for third in runs scored with 646? Such a contradiction can only mean one thing: the PawSox did their best work offensively when it mattered most, namely in the latter innings.
Last month saw Pawtucket go through a stretch in which it became commonplace to see Beyeler & Co. stage one dramatic win after another. Such a stretch allowed Pawtucket to move into and remain in first place for virtually all of August.
You tend to look for clues over the course of a long season; signs of life that suggest something special could be on the horizon. From this perspective, the clincher came Aug. 2 when infielder Nate Spears blasted a walk-off home run in the last of the ninth against Louisville. A jubilant bunch of PawSox couldnâ€™t wait to congratulate Spears as he neared home plate, a scene that crossed my mind as Pawtucket celebrated its division-clinching victory Saturday night.
Spearsâ€™ dramatic blast represents one of nine walk-off wins Pawtucket recorded. Even more impressive are the 14 wins recorded in the teamâ€™s final at-bat. The latter means of measuring the teamâ€™s clutch play includes wins in which the PawSox, as the home team, scored the go-ahead in the last of the eighth. The figure also extends to instances when Pawtucket pushed across runs in either the ninth inning or extras.
One of those 14 wins materialized Saturday night when Pawtucket exploded for seven runs in the home portion of the eighth after beginning the frame down 7-5 to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Such a thunderous showing further legitimizes the PawSox as a unit that shouldnâ€™t be counted out, no matter what the score or how many innings remain.
4). The Sultan of Swat â€¦ and the ability to rub off on others
Ryan Lavarnway did more than bash home runs and connect with fans seated behind the outfield fence. Operating as Pawtucketâ€™s lone power threat, the slugging catcher/DH was able to relieve some of the pressure that was confronting middle-of-the-order types such as Lars Anderson and Hector Luna prior to Lavarnwayâ€™s arrival in mid-June.
Is it a coincidence that Anderson has hit 10 of his 14 home runs following Lavarnwayâ€™s arrival? One could certainly make a strong argument that, yes, Lavarnwayâ€™s stretches beyond his own personal stats and the 11-4 record Pawtucket recorded in games in which he went deep.
Said Pawtucket hitting coach Chili Davis, â€śRyan came in and established that he was going to be a force in this lineup and the guys started to rely on him. You feed off guys that are competitors and good players, so having a player (like Lavarnway) in front and in back of you is very important.â€ť
5). Setting the tone
The PawSox players made it a point to include Beyeler in the fracas that broke out on the field Saturday. At one point several players chased and surrounded the skipper before dumping beer on him.
Such an act validates just how much respect Beyeler commands in the clubhouse. The players seem to enjoy playing for him because you always know where you stand.
â€śArnie only cares about you getting better,â€ť offered Iglesias. â€śIâ€™m very glad to have him as my manager these first two years of playing in America.â€ť
Added outfielder Daniel Nava, who played for Beyeler briefly in 2009 in Double-A Portland: â€śHe makes sure that guys are ready to play nine innings.â€ť
6). Donâ€™t forget about us
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The makeup of a minor-league team can change on a daily basis. This yearâ€™s PawSox team was hardly the exception to the rule with new faces such as Alex Wilson and Will Middlebrooks coming aboard and notables such as Kevin Millwood, Andrew Miller and Josh Reddick departing the grounds â€“ three guys who left a lasting impression on the teammates they left behind.
â€śThere are a lot of factors that go into winning in the minors,â€ť Nava said. â€śAll of those guys helped us to get to this point.â€ť