Spin Forward: Red Sox veer from plan
Usually patient, Boston hitters go after Cleveland's Byrd
CLEVELAND -- The time for patience is over. Not that the Red Sox didn't already know, seeing as how their time in the postseason could be running short.
Less than a week has passed since Boston's hitters and their renowned approach for working pitchers sent Indians aces C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona to early exits. If it wasn't the walks, it was the hitters' counts, forcing the pitcher to come over the plate against one of the American League's most dangerous lineups. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz wouldn't offer at anything that was not in the zone, even if it was seemingly just off the corner.
The way the series has turned in just 48 hours, those days of walks and favorable counts seem like weeks ago. What Sabathia and Carmona couldn't do -- get ahead in counts -- Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd have done on an incredibly consistent basis. In turn, what the Red Sox don't want to do -- swing at first pitches, put the ball in play early in counts -- they've now had to do.
"We've been doing a better job just controlling the baseball game in regard to our pitching," Indians manager Eric Wedge said.
How they do that with Sabathia and Carmona coming around again, and how those starters adjust from their subpar first starts, will be more than a subplot when this series resumes on Thursday.
"You have to keep your approach," Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, "because there's a way you got here."
Both Youkilis and Mike Lowell said they can't change the mentality they've used for success all season. Yet if they get a pitch to hit early in counts, they're going to go after it. They just can't afford to chase. The way Cleveland has turned around its pitching these last two games, however, Boston is doing more chasing than normal, partly because it's more aggressive.
The difference begins with the first-pitch strikes. Sabathia landed just 13 of his 24 first pitches for strikes in the opener, and Carmona was worse at 7-for-20. After Westbrook landed 21 of his 27 first pitches on the plate for strikes, Byrd followed suit, going 17-for-21.
There's a more subtle difference behind those numbers, however, and it involved called first strikes rather than swinging ones. When Carmona was struggling to find the corners Saturday night, only one out of the 20 batters he faced swung at a first pitch. Then Monday night, as Westbrook pounded the lower part of the zone, the Red Sox offered at just five of his 21 first-pitch strikes -- none from the third through fifth innings, when he was 7-for-10 on his first pitches.
On Tuesday, the Red Sox tried to adjust. It didn't take much to know they wouldn't be in many great counts against Byrd, not with his grand total of 28 walks surrendered during the regular season, so they were ready to swing early. Out of Byrd's 17 first-pitch strikes, Boston's hitters swung at eight of them.
"You know, he's such a strike thrower, and he got on a roll," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Even the first inning, [he was] very aggressive in to the lefties, which again, with his offspeed pitches and the way he throws strikes, really made him tough."
Byrd's first pitch Tuesday night induced a Dustin Pedroia groundout, followed by a Youkilis fly ball on an 0-2 pitch, having taken a first-pitch strike and swung through the next. The Red Sox didn't take a ball until the 0-1 pitch to Ortiz, Byrd's sixth pitch of the night. Ortiz fouled off Byrd's next offering and then swung through a 1-2 fastball for strike three.
Those patient Red Sox hitters? They were somewhere else. Not only did Boston not get a first-pitch ball until the eighth batter of the game, leading off the third inning, but four of the first 12 batters fell into 0-2 holes. That included Ortiz his next time up, when he fouled off the first two pitches before forcing out to short. The only Red Sox player to go to a three-ball count on Byrd was backup catcher Doug Mirabelli, who did it twice but was retired both times -- including a fifth-inning strikeout when he swung at a high fastball.
It's not a change in approach, but a reaction to what they're being given.
"They have much different stuff," Lowell said in comparing Westbrook and Byrd, "but I think their game plan is like any other pitchers -- get ahead and establish strike one. When you're hitting your spots, it helps. It opens up more than if you're not."
Ortiz finally got into a hitter's count in the sixth inning after Youkilis homered on an 0-2 pitch. After Byrd missed high and outside twice, Ortiz fouled off a 2-0 pitch over the plate before lining the next one over the right-field fence.
If Sabathia learns from his series-opening mistakes, or at least from watching Byrd and Westbrook, he'll be pounding the zone. All the same, count on the Red Sox waiting for him to prove he'll challenge them.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.