BOSTON — If we accept that pitching is to carry the Red Sox and that bullpens now dominate postseason pitching, a lot for the Sox could boil down to two pitchers, Carson Smith and David Price, and one word: frequency.
Make no mistake, the Red Sox do want Price to pitch like Andrew Miller. Sox manager John Farrell has been trying to soft peddle that idea, which makes some sense. Because what the team doesn’t know, as Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski noted to the Eagle Tribune, is how often Price can throw.
Price himself has described his physical situation as trial-and-error. The lefty could close on Wednesday night against the Orioles, potentially pitching with two days of rest after a very encouraging outing Sunday. (Addison Reed and Craig Kimbrel were both unavailable Wednesday because of workload.)
When would Price next pitch? Can he get to a point where he can pitch in both Games 1 and 2 of an assumed American League Division Series? The same question looms for Smith, who’s making a late but tantalizing run at a bullpen spot.
(The Sox bullpen has been remarkably strong all year with different people cycling through, but its postseason look and usage are different matters.)
Smith, maybe more than Price, may be the biggest surprise as the postseason roster shapes up. For most of the season, it was easy to say, at some point, Smith will contribute. He was targeted for a June activation on the way back from Tommy John surgery. But after several delays, he had to be looked at as a bonus, if something works out. The trade for Reed underscored that.
But he’s back, and his last two outings have been hitless.
Smith on Wednesday said he wasn’t thinking about the possibility of a postseason roster spot.
“We got a solid group of bullpen arms down there,” Smith said. “It may be a tough group to crack. … I know what I’m capable of, I know the pitcher I was prior to surgery, I know if I got to where I was, I know I can make a push. Right now, I’m just trying to focus on every day.”
Smith’s velocity on Monday was the best it’s been since his return, and velocity was what he was searching for in August while pitching with Triple-A Pawtucket. He earned a save for the Red Sox in Monday’s 11-inning, 10-8 win over the Orioles, with his sinker sitting at 93 mph, per BrooksBaseball.net.
What finally brought the velocity back?
“I’m sure there’s a little bit of extra adrenaline of being in a save opportunity,” Smith said. “That’s something that really hit home with me being a closer at one point in my career. I think with a day’s rest as well, I was beyond fresh after taking six days off. But I think mechanically, I’m sure there’s things that just clicked in that outing and I’m just going to try to focus on that and continue to do that.
“I knew [the velocity] was going to come back. I’ve pitched with 91, 92 mph … sometimes throughout my career. It’s not like I’m always a 94, 95 guy. So I know how to pitch 91, 92. That’s what I’m trying to do if 93, 94 isn’t there.”
Asked to record two outs on Tuesday, Smith wasn’t throwing quite as hard. But merely going back to back was an accomplishment considering his long road.
“I felt good,” Smith said. “I got a situation that [was] something I’ve been able to handle in my previous seasons. But I mean, it was a pretty comfortable situation with the two right-handed hitters and only two outs to get. It was a nice way to ease into back-to-back [games].”
Pitching coach Carl Willis feels like the Sox were smart not to push Smith too far or hard throughout his rehab process.
In a way, that’s the approach the Sox are taking with Price: a conservative one, by not asking him to build up as a starter.
How often both pitchers can throw could be the key to October.
“It’s been a long haul and there have been times he’s gotten right up to the door of being ready to be active and we’ve had to take a step back,” Willis said of Smith. “As frustrating as that was for him particularly, I think, we’re seeing the benefits of that now. And just doing right and doing what's right by him and not pushing him.”