PAWTUCKET – Is there room for three hybrid pitchers on the same Red Sox roster?
It’s certainly worth pondering after two pitchers who can both start and relieve took the mound at McCoy Stadium on Sunday afternoon. In what figures to be his final rehab appearance, Brian Johnson started allowed one run in four innings as Rochester completed a four-game sweep of the PawSox with a 5-3 victory.
Johnson gave way to Steven Wright, who began a rehab assignment while continuing to serve an 80-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s performance enhancing drug policy. Wright’s trademark knuckleball was definitely floating, though his 1.2-inning stint ended on a bid of a down note when he threw a fastball and watched Rochester cleanup hitter Jake Cave deposit it over the warehouse in straightaway center field. The home run traveled an estimated 400 feet.
“I shouldn’t have thrown it,” said Wright, “but I felt good just being able to go out there and throw strikes, which is the key for me right now. It doesn’t matter how good your stuff is if you can’t get it over the plate. Everything else can build off of that.”
Hector Velazquez is another versatile pitcher at Boston’s disposal. At the moment, he’s on the injured list with a back injury. Last year, the Sox rode the combination of Velazquez and Johnson on days when they needed someone to make a spot start. The recent struggles in starting nods given to Ryan Weber and Josh Smith underscores just how much Boston misses the presence of having a pitcher who’s already on the 25-man roster and can slide into a role at a moment’s notice.
In horse racing parlance, Johnson appears to have the lead on both Wright and Velazquez. Johnson, who struck out six and walked two on Sunday, had been sidelined since early April with elbow inflammation that was originally feared to be worse when the injury was first revealed. The clock on Johnson’s 30-day rehab assignment will expire on Thursday, thus the Sox will have to make a decision.
Johnson is out of minor-league options, so the Sox cannot activate him and send him to Triple-A.
In Wright’s case, there shouldn’t be any fear of committing a bullpen spot to a knuckleball pitcher. A year ago, he appeared 16 games as a reliever for Boston and posted a 1.52 ERA.
“Once I became a knuckleballer, I always said that I just want to go out there and pitch … whether it’s one inning, two innings, six innings, starting or relieving,” said Wright. “As a knuckleballer, you have to have that mentality of pitching at any time and regardless of the situation. To me, it doesn’t matter.”
It’s rare for a team’s major-league pitching staff to have multiple options when it comes to pitchers who can provide help in the rotation and in the bullpen.
“It’s also not easy to do. It’s definitely challenging. Physically, you have a period of three or four days where you know you’re starting. The next thing you know, you’re back in the bullpen,” said Wright, who retired the first five Rochester hitters he faced – two via strikeout – before surrendering the home run to Cave. “(Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie) does a great job of communicating. They give you options and sometimes they’ll say that they don’t know. They’ll help you so you’re not surprised in case something happens.”
Wright will pitch again soon, perhaps as early as the middle of the week. PawSox manager Billy McMillon said after Sunday’s game that it’s still unclear whether or not Wright will start in that appearance or pitch in relief.
For a pitcher who hasn’t been on a mound in a competitive setting since last September 29, Wright said it was a refreshing change of pace to pitch in front of an actual crowd.
“Physically, I felt good,” said Wright. “The adrenaline was definitely there.”
EXTRA BASES: After throwing 62 pitches (36 for strikes) and generating nine swing-and-misses, Johnson went out to the PawSox bullpen and threw an additional 15 pitches. “No issues with his performance today,” said McMillon. … Tyler Thornburg (right hip impingement) began his rehab assignment on a positive note, retiring the Red Wings in order in the seventh. Of the 18 pitches Thornburg threw, only nine went for strikes. Velocity, however, wasn’t a major holdup when you looked out the radar gun and saw Thornburg routinely hit 95 miles per hour. He struck out one. … The fourth Red Sox rehabber to log innings for the PawSox on Sunday was Tzu-Wei Lin, who played shortstop and was lifted after six innings. He went 2-for-3. … Rochester broke a 2-2 deadlock with a two-run home run off the bat of Williams Astudillo in the eighth. … Pawtucket lefty Kyle Hart was tagged with the loss after allowing three runs on four hits in two innings. … All three runs that Pawtucket scored came via the long ball. Gorkys Hernandez deposited a solo shot into the Rochester’s bullpen in right field in the first inning to put Pawtucket in front, 1-0. Hernandez – owner of a .173 batting average on May 29 – now has six home runs in the last 11 games. … Bryce Brentz blasted his ninth home run and also threw out a runner at the plate from left field. … Cole Sturgeon also went deep for Pawtucket, now losers of five straight. … The PawSox are off Monday. A two-city, six-game road trip begins Tuesday with the first of three in Louisville. Pawtucket will also play games in Indianapolis before returning back to McCoy.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03