PAWTUCKET – Concrete evidence as to why Steven Wright is experiencing a downturn on the mound recently was on full display in the first inning of his latest start on Monday.
Dealing with a bases-loaded mess that came about due to a walk and two singles, Wright looked in at Indianapolis’ Jerry Sands, owner of a .168 batting average. As has been the case lately, Wright quickly fell behind, this time 2-0 to Sands.
With the pressure to throw strikes mounting, Wright had little choice but to resort to other measures. His specialty is the knuckleball, a feel pitch where if you don’t like how it rolls off the fingertips upon release, chances are the end result is going to prove less than desirable.
For the rest of his confrontation with Sands, Wright was butterfly-less. The pitcher was able to zip two strikes by Sands to square the count at 2-2 before throwing ball three. Digging deep into his bag of tricks, Wright’s sixth pitch of the sequence was a curveball that caught enough of the right edge of the plate. Sands jumped all over the offering, lofting a towering fly that sailed beyond the left-field wall at McCoy Stadium for a grand slam.
“He threw a breaking pitch, which is Steven’s third-best pitch,” noted PawSox pitching coach Rich Sauveur.
Just like that, Indianapolis enjoyed a 5-0 lead prior to Pawtucket taking its first swings of the ballgame, a development that soured Wright to no end. He knew exactly where to point the finger – it was the same person who continues to misfire with his bread-and-butter pitch.
It seems Wright has been on a never-ending crusade to restore balance since rejoining the PawSox in late April. His return to the Triple-A ranks marked the culmination of a Red Sox stay where he pitched 3 2/3 innings spanning one relief appearance over a two-week span.
(You may recall Wright made his big-league debut the same stormy April night that saw Alfredo Aceves implode on the mound against Oakland).
Coming off a lengthy stretch that featured limited game activity, the belief was that Wright would need a start or two in order to get reacquainted with taking the ball once every five days. Monday served as his fifth start since rejoining Pawtucket, yet the kinks remain in the process of being ironed out.
“What affected me the most with that long layoff was that I wasn’t able to control my emotions. Once my emotions got out of control, my mechanics got out of control and it just sort of snowballed,” said Wright on Tuesday.
Perhaps what’s most alarming about Wright isn’t the 6.11 ERA he’s posted in four starts this month, nor the 11 walks in 17 2/3 innings. His pitch count has been alarmingly high. He was pulled after throwing 60 pitches in two innings May 5 against Durham before throwing 101 pitches in five at Gwinnett four days later.
Then came the 92 pitches in 4 2/3 innings he registered against the aforementioned Braves on May 15. Though Wright didn’t get off on the right foot against the Indians Monday, he managed to provide manager Gary DiSarcina with six innings, throwing 101 pitches.
To say that Wright has not been pitch-efficient is a serious understatement. As far a sound explanation why that’s the case, he feels it all traces back to the knuckler and his inability to harmonize with it. Solving this pitching conundrum has resulting in him turning to pitches that he prefers to have an element of surprise surrounding them.
As Wright is well aware, the problem lies when throwing his low 80s fastball and curveball becomes imperative. He knows he’s not fooling anyone, hence the heavy emphasis on such an odd pitch.
“I’m looking to throw (the knuckler) to where I have one set speed, which is 76-78 (mph), and then I can add or subtract off of that,” said Wright. “For me, it was trying to get back to what feels comfortable rather than worrying about what the velocity is. I was thinking about throwing it slower and my mechanics were getting off and I was getting frustrated.
“In all my outings, my knuckleball was good as far as movement, but I was falling behind. That results in me throwing my other pitches, which are good pitches if I’m throwing my knuckleball for strikes,” he continued. “If I’m not throwing it for strikes, I get exposed and my window gets a lot smaller than if I’m throwing my knuckleball for strikes.”
DiSarcina concurred with Wright’s theory.
“When you fall behind guys as a knuckleballer and you have to go to your secondary stuff, you better be able to throw strikes,” said the Pawtucket skipper. “The hitter knows what’s coming and like (Sands) did, he’s going to hit it out of the ballpark.
“Command and pitch selection have just been haunting him,” DiSarcina delved deeper. “Each one of his starts has mirrored each other. He hasn’t been able to get ahead with his knuckleball. If you’re facing a knuckleballer and the pitch isn’t in the zone, you’re not swinging because you don’t have a chance.”
Removing Monday’s first-inning implosion from the equation, Wright feels that he has something to build off of heading into his next turn. He held the Indians scoreless in the second and fourth innings before allowing single runs in the fifth and six. The latter run was a home run that was the result of falling behind and Jared Goedert turning on a 2-2 pitch.
“I was able to find my release point,” said Wright about the in-game adjustment he was able to make successfully.
Now comes the next phase for someone who at the start of the season was viewed as valuable starting pitching insurance should the need arise with Boston.
“What I felt from the second inning to the sixth [on Monday] is something to carry over into my bullpen (session) on Thursday and take it into my next start,” Wright summarized about his upcoming plan of attack.