Manager Arnie Beyeler may not want to admit it but his Pawtucket Red Sox are in a pennant race. They open a four-game series with International League North leader Lehigh Valley tonight in Allentown, Pa. The PawSox trailed the IronPigs by one game heading into Monday night’s action.
We hear all the time that Pawtucket’s main job is to have replacement players ready for Boston, and the PawSox have succeeded in that department, too. Their “alumni” have played an integral role in Boston’s rise to the top of the American League East this season.
Consider this: Josh Reddick (who hit .230 for Pawtucket) is batting over .350 since joining Boston last month. Andrew Miller has compiled a 4-1 record in six starts for Boston, which has won five of those games. Infielder Drew Sutton went up to Boston and batted .298 in 47 at-bats. Only Yamaico Navarro (4-for-24) has failed to hit when promoted from Pawtucket to Boston.
In the pitching department, Alfredo Aceves began his season in Pawtucket. Everyone knew the former Yankee reliever wouldn’t be here long. Aceves soon became a permanent member of Boston’s pitching staff and is 5-1 in 68 valuable innings. Aceves has started four games and he has saved one, too.
Scott Atchison, Hideki Okajima, Felix Doubront, Kyle Weiland and Tommy Hottovy have also ridden the shuttle from McCoy Stadium to Fenway Park.
Okajima, who was such an important setup man in Boston before Daniel Bard came along, has been spending most of his time in Pawtucket, where he sports a gaudy 6-1 won-loss record. Don’t be surprised if the veteran lefty ends up in the back end of a trade before the July 31 non-waiver deadline passes at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
The PawSox were running third in the I.L. North back in May. Lehigh Valley and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre got off ahead of Pawtucket. Since then, the Little Yankees have fallen back to third place, five games off the pace.
Pawtucket’s recent hot streak roughly coincides with the promotion of catcher/DH Ryan Lavarnway from Portland of the Class AA Eastern League. Lavarnway has batted .372 in 36 games with 13 home runs and 36 RBI. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound former Yale University star has become the star of the team, a fan favorite whose prodigious home runs on recent home stands have excited the fans and earned him the nickname “Babe” from his admiring teammates.
Hitting is contagious. A guy like Lavarnway joins the team and goes off on a hitting binge that takes the pressure off his teammates. The players loosen up because they know their new cleanup hitter can come though when it counts. That makes it easier for them to produce, which is what happened on Sunday night when Lars Anderson drilled a two-out homer in the top of the ninth inning to beat Buffalo.
Anderson, who had been touted as the next big power hitter to come out of Boston’s system, has regressed in his two seasons in Pawtucket. Anyone who knows the likeable Californian appreciates that the lefthanded first baseman just wants to play baseball and win games. His enthusiasm is also contagious, the same way Lavarnway’s power hitting is good for the team.
When center fielder Che-Hsuan Lin delivered a game-winning single last Wednesday to beat Lehigh Valley, Anderson led the charge from the dugout. The PawSox swarmed Lin, celebrating a walk-off win that gave them three victories in a row over the IronPigs. They ended up losing the final game of the four-game series but three wins over Buffalo this past weekend kept them right on Lehigh Valley’s heels.
Pawtucket’s recent charge can also be traced to its strong pitching rotation anchored by three big league veterans -- Kevin Millwood, Brandon Duckworth and Matt Fox. Millwood, a 14-year big leaguer, is 6-1 with Pawtucket. Duckworth is 7-6. Fox, a former first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins, is 6-4. Doubront bounced back from an early-season injury and joined the starting rotation, taking the spot vacated by Miller. Doubront may actually have a better future in Boston than Miller, once he gets stretched out. He is pitching to a 3.28 earned run average over 60 innings.
Beyeler and pitching coach Rich Sauveur have patched together a bullpen that keeps getting thinned out whenever Boston runs short of pitchers due to extra-inning games, injuries and other unusual occurrences. Michael Bowden has saved 12 games for Pawtucket in between promotions and demotions from Boston. Lefthander Randy Williams saved six games in six opportunities before getting the call to Boston earlier this month.
Jason Rice has saved four games. Tony Pena Jr. saved three before moving into the starting rotation.
Veteran lefty Rich Hill was lights out for Pawtucket back in April with a 1.18 ERA. He got the call to Boston and blew out his elbow one day.
In short, this Pawtucket team is in a pennant race because of contributions from players throughout Boston’s farm system. Lavarnway provided the offensive energy that has taken the PawSox from third place to the cusp of first place. The experienced pitching staff has kept Pawtucket in games night after night, even when Beyeler didn’t have a rested starting pitcher available. The PawSox have won several “bullpen” games, a testimony to the depth of pitching in the higher echelons of Boston’s farm system.
Pawtucket and Lehigh Valley will square off over the next four nights down in Allentown. It is interesting that the farm teams of Boston and Philadelphia are dueling for first place in Class AAA ball, mainly because all evidence indicates the two parent teams are destined for a showdown in the 2011 World Series.