PAWTUCKET — Odds are good that the Pawtucket Red Sox will secure a berth in the International League playoffs before the regular season ends on Sept. 5. The PawSox and Lehigh Valley are locked in a virtual dead heat for first place in the I.L. North standings.
Pawtucket also owns a 3-game bulge on Gwinnett, which is the closest wild-card contender to the two North leaders.
Still, there is room for doubt, based on injuries to starting pitchers Brandon Duckworth and Matt Fox, who led a staff that ranks second in league earned run average before they got hurt last week. Both former big leaguers are on the disabled list. Fox (right shoulder strain) could become active in the next week while Duckworth (sore right elbow) might not come back at all.
That leaves manager Arnie Beyeler short of consistent starting pitchers. Sunday’s starter, lefthander Felix Doubront, pitched a scoreless first inning and then couldn’t get anyone out in the second inning as Syracuse scored six runs. The Chiefs went on to post a 7-4 victory over Pawtucket.
Doubront’s outing was a head-scratcher. The 24-year-old southpaw struck out the first two batters he faced on six pitches. Felix needed six more pitches to get the third out.
In the next inning, Jesus Valdez doubled and so did Tug Hulett, bringing home the game’s first run. After Seth Bynum singled, Jeff Frazier took Doubront deep for a 4-0 lead.
Doubront, who fell to 1-5 on the season with the loss, then walked Carlos Maldonado and gave up a double to Corey Brown. Beyeler then replaced him with Royce Ring, who got two outs before Chris Merrero singled home two more runs.
“I was talking to their third baseman (Matt Antonelli) after the first inning,” said Beyeler, who doubles as third base coach. “He told me it looked like they were in for a long day because Felix really had his stuff in the first inning. I don’t know what happened (in the second). He quit getting ahead of hitters.”
Beyeler shrugged. The manager pieced together a “bullpen game,” using Ring, Junichi Tazawa, Hideki Okajima and Scott Atchison to get the final 24 outs. Only Atchison gave up a run.
Tazawa, coming off Tommy John surgery in 2010, continued his strong showing since returning to Pawtucket earlier this month. The righthander threw 2.2 hitless innings, striking out three and needing only 33 pitches to get eight outs. Tazawa has now thrown 10 scoreless innings with the PawSox, striking out 14 batters and walking just one.
“Anything we get out of (Tazawa) is a bonus this year,” Beyeler said. “He is on a structured plan with us. We hope to have him ready for go (full-time) next season.”
Tazawa touched 92 on the radar gun.
“His velocity isn’t what it was,” Beyeler said, speaking of the pre-surgery Tazawa who shot through the farm system and pitched for Boston in 2009. “What makes him effective is his fast-ball command. He works ahead of hitters.”
Pawtucket’s offense, which clearly is diminished without Ryan Lavarnway’s bat in the lineup, never pressured Syracuse starter Yunesky Maya (who came in with a 2-8 record). Maya allowed two runs in six innings.
The PawSox got a two-run homer from Hector Luna in the bottom of the ninth inning to make it a 7-4 game. Luna had three hits on the day. Leadoff man Che-Hsuan Lin added two doubles.
Pawtucket is 1-3 since Lavarnway joined Boston. Third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who came up from Portland when Lavarnway departed, is 0-for-11 in three games with six strikeouts.
“He’s pressing,” Beyeler admitted, “but he has good teammates here and they will pick him up. You (the media) are the ones who put expectations on him. He’ll be fine.”
The PawSox have 16 games left on their regular season schedule. They have two home games remaining with Syracuse tonight and Tuesday night before playing two at the Chiefs’ home field on Wednesday and Thursday.
Pawtucket then visits Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for four games. By this time next week, the PawSox could be in a dogfight for the wild-card berth. Or they could be right where they are today, sitting in the driver’s seat.
Beyeler will send righthander Tony Pena Jr. (8-5, 3.60) to the mound tonight. Alex Wilson (0-0, 4.50 in one start) takes the ball on Tuesday night. Pena is a converted starter who began the season in the bullpen. Wilson is a rising prospect thrown into the middle of a Class AAA pennant race.
Big league veteran Greg Smith, who beat Columbus in his PawSox debut last Friday, could be a key starter for Pawtucket over the next two weeks. He’ll team with Kyle Weiland (8-9, 3.48 in 22 starts) to lead the pitching staff.
An injury-depleted pitching staff will match forces with a Lavarnway-less PawSox offense to take this team to the finish line over the next 15 days. It should be fun to watch.
EXTRA BASES: The crowd of 10,654 was the biggest of the season … Lin led off the bottom of the first with a double and was balked to third by Maya. The next two batters popped to third base and then Maya got the third out on an infield grounder … Middlebrooks showed off his cannon of an arm while throwing out Matt Antonelli on a slow grounder down the line in the fifth inning … Syracuse shortstop Seth Bynum returned the favor in the bottom of the ninth, after Luna homered, when he went deep in the hole to glove Brett Carroll’s grounder and then made a leaping throw to first base to just nip the runner … Doubront threw 32 pitches in the second inning without recording an out.