PAWTUCKET — There was a degree of unrest surrounding Zach Stewart upon rejoining the Pawtucket Red Sox late last week, the kind stemming from when he would be taking the mound again and for which ball club.
Returning to the minors after enduring a forgettable Red Sox debut against the Angels, the 25-year-old Stewart was potentially facing a longer-than-usual period of rest due to the PawSox having yet to officially clinch a playoff spot along with time winding down in the regular season. Couple those two variables together and it’s certainly reasonable to assume that Stewart would have remained idle until Boston returned home from the West Coast later this week.
Turns out Stewart won’t have to wait that long as PawSox skipper Arnie Beyeler has named the key piece the Sox received in the Kevin Youkilis trade as the starter for the team’s playoff opener against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The best-of-five semifinal series gets underway Wednesday night at McCoy Stadium.
“I was looking at my next start not really as far as where it would be, but you’ve got to go with what happens,” said Stewart after Pawtucket closed out the regular season in dramatic fashion, winning 6-4 in 12 innings Monday against Scranton. “You’ve just got to go with whatever happens and wherever they tell you to go and do your best there.”
Naturally, Stewart didn’t take too much away from last Wednesday’s three-inning implosion that saw the Angels clobber him for nine runs on 10 hits. Since joining the PawSox in late June, he’s gone 3-5 with a 3.94 ERA in 11 starts.
“Bad outings happen, so you don’t want to think about it too much,” Stewart said. “I definitely left the ball up too much, but for the most part I wasn’t very sharp or consistent. I’m going to start from square one in my next start and make sure I get into my rhythm, get the ball down and pretty much just pitch.”
Naturally, Stewart is looking forward to taking the ball in the playoff opener.
“With the playoffs, there’s always a different feel,” he said. “It’s always good to be in those situations.”
The PawSox have yet to name a starter for Game 2, which will also take place at McCoy on Thursday night. When the series with the Junior Yankees shifts to Rochester, it will be Billy Buckner on the hill for Game Three. Should the series require a fourth and fifth contest, the PawSox would counter with Nelson Figueroa and Steven Wright, respectively.
Neither Beyeler nor Scranton manager Dave Miley wished to prolong Monday’s game any more than absolutely necessary, hence why both sides turned to position players in extra frames in order to save the pitching staff. With that in mind, the titanic game-ending, two-run home run by outfielder J.C. Linares didn’t contain the excitement typically seen in a walk-off win, given the victim was Scranton reserve catcher Ryan Baker.
On the other side, infielder Jon Hee delivered a six-pitch 12th inning for Pawtucket en route to picking up the win. He’s now retired all six batters he’s faced this season. Hee also made his presence felt at the plate with a 3-for-5 performance that featured two RBI.
“That was cool. It was kind of like a slow-pitch softball game at the end,” manager Arnie Beyeler said with a slight chuckle. “We got it over with and now we can go play. That’s the bottom line.”
The PawSox (79-65) trailed 4-1 in the eighth before tying the game behind Danny Valencia’s two-out single. Bryce Brentz picked up his first two Triple-A hits, snapping what was a 0-for-12 skid. Monday also saw Double-A Portland name Brentz the team’s MVP.
Knuckleballer Steven Wright delivered six innings of two-run ball for Pawtucket with six strikeouts. One of the few mistakes Wright made came against former Red Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald, who slugged his third home run of the season for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. All three have transpired against Pawtucket.
It was brief and to the point, the 1-2-3 seventh inning Scott Atchison tossed.
On the disabled list since July 15 with right forearm tightness, Atchison required just eight pitches to retire Scranton. He induced a groundout to second, a shallow fly to right and a fly ball to left that saw Jeremy Hazelbaker make a terrific sliding catch.
“Atch did a nice job,” Beyeler said. “He was up a little bit with a couple pitches, but the ball was jumping out of his hand real good and the breaking ball had some depth. Real quick inning, like he does.”
For someone who not that long ago was being mentioned in the same breath as Tommy John surgery, Atchison is hopeful that he’ll be able to contribute at the big-league level in some capacity before the end of the season. If everything checks out accordingly, Atchison will pitch next in Game Two of Pawtucket’s playoff series on Thursday.
“Hopefully we can keep him pitching in games somehow,” Beyeler said. “We’ll just have to see how that all works out.”