Atchison trying to stick with Red Sox
Right-hander returned from Japan for another shot at Majors
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Along one wall of the Red Sox's clubhouse sits a trio of relievers whose average age is roughly 37. They get along well, sharing war stories and doing crossword puzzles. But there is just one spot to be had on the team for the three of them.
Scott Atchison, who will turn 34 near the end of the month, is the youngest of the bunch. He knows he's in direct competition with 35-year-old Joe Nelson and 41-year-old Brian Shouse, but it would be difficult to find any animosity in that part of the clubhouse. Perhaps they've been around the block too many times for a little spring competition to get in the way of building a relationship.
"They put us over here with our lockers together, so you're getting to know guys," Atchison said. "I really didn't know anybody in the clubhouse coming over here, but I've gotten to know them well. We know we're competing against each other. We know what the situation is, but nobody's not talking to anybody because [of that]. We're helping each other out, and everybody wants to do well.
"You don't wish anybody to do bad. These guys are all great, and they're all good pitchers. Unfortunately not everybody's going to make it. You wish the best for whoever does and go with it."
Atchison certainly has made the most of his opportunity, and it's easy to understand why he doesn't take it for granted. Originally drafted in 1998 by the Mariners as a senior out of Texas Christian University, it took him six years to claw his way to the big leagues for the first time. He appeared in 25 games in 2004, six more in '05 and then found his way into the Giants' bullpen in '07 for 22 appearances.
It was then that Japan came calling, and the possibility of money and stability was appealing after nine professional seasons and not much Major League service time to show for it.
Atchison spent the past two years pitching for Hanshin, and pitching well. Over the two seasons, he went a combined 12-9 with a 2.77 ERA, striking out 166 and walking 46 in 194 2/3 innings. In 2009, when he pitched solely as a reliever, he had a 1.70 ERA in 75 appearances. Despite the success and the potential to make more money, he always had an eye on returning to the United States.
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But it was more than just wanting to show he could still do it in the Majors. His 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Callie, has a disorder called thrombocytopenia-absent radius. She doesn't have radial bones in her arms. She needs therapy and surgeries to stretch out her arms as she continues to grow. So Atchison walked away from the job stability in Japan to have access to doctors in the U.S. and to give the Major Leagues another go.
"I didn't really look at it as taking a chance so much," Atchison explained. "It was what my family needed. I felt like I could pitch over here. I felt like I got better in the two years I was in Japan. I looked at it as it was the right thing to be doing, this is where we're comfortable and where we want to be, back in the United States. We just did it, and I didn't really worry about it after that.
"I always felt, if nothing else, I'd come back and try to play one more time over here. It worked out that two years was enough [in Japan]. I still feel great, and I still feel I can do this for a while. I just have to keep proving myself and keep doing that."
If his Grapefruit League performance is any indication, Atchison has plenty left in the tank. He has made five one-inning performances and has yet to give up a run or a walk. The right-hander has allowed four hits and struck out five.
And it's not like he's facing Minor Leaguers late in games. The Red Sox have been bringing him in behind the starters, when opposing lineups still have big league regulars in there. His performance hasn't gone unnoticed.
"He's done a great job," manager Terry Francona said. "His regular season already started. He's throwing three pitches for strikes. He's got the fastball, cutter, changeup. He throws strikes and gets some outs."
The other two in this competition have also pitched well. Nelson has given up two runs over six innings, allowing four hits and two walks while striking out five. Shouse has allowed one earned run over 5 1/3 innings on five hits and a walk. He has struck out four. The Red Sox might want a reliever in this spot who can get out left-handers, so that will be part of the evaluation as well.
One thing Atchison has learned is not to pay attention to any of that. He was taught that lesson the hard way, back in 2005 when he was with the Mariners. He was coming off a year in which he had thrown 30 2/3 Major League innings and had pitched pretty well coming out of Seattle's bullpen. He knew he had a good chance to win a roster spot that spring. But the fight for a job got the better of him. He ended up getting hurt, but before that, spending too much time tracking what his competition was doing kept him from pitching the way he was capable.
"The first time I was ever in this situation, I put way too much pressure on myself, and I started watching what the other people were doing," Atchison said. "I'd say, 'Oh, he had a bad inning. I can have a good one right here and this is going to help me.' It didn't work very well. I didn't have a good spring.
"That's just the wrong approach. I've really gone to thinking I really don't have anything to lose. I just go out there and say, 'This is what I've got.' I've definitely learned from past springs, and hopefully, it pays off."
It's likely a contest that won't be won until the very end of Spring Training. Atchison knows all too well that he could pitch his heart out and still not win a job if the Red Sox decide to go in another direction. He's ready for whatever lies ahead, be it a return to the big leagues for the first time in three years or a ticket to Pawtucket.
"The thoughts are there, about what's going to go down," Atchison said. "If I have to go to Triple-A and pitch, then I'll go to Triple-A and pitch and hope that I get a chance. I knew that was part of the deal coming back.
"If that happens, I'll go down and try to take care of my business and do the best I can down there. Usually, you don't make it through the whole season with the same 12 guys, so there tends to be opportunities. You just have to be ready if they call your name."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.