Felix Doubront, a 25-year-old lefthander with a big fastball and sharp secondary pitches, is one of the most talented pitchers on the Red Sox roster.
He also can be one of the most confounding. On Saturday night he offered a look at all facets of his pitching persona.
Doubront looked almost unprepared in the first inning against the Houston Astros, walking three batters and hitting another. The crowd at Fenway Park grew restless as Doubront allowed two runs.
But Doubront, in his own words, “flipped the switch” and pitched into the seventh inning as the Red Sox won again, 8-4.
The Sox have won four straight and at 17-7 have the best record in baseball. They’re off to their best start since 2002.
Doubront (3-0) allowed three runs on four hits over 6⅔ innings. He walked four — one after the first inning — and struck out eight. After throwing 31 pitches in the first inning, he needed only 64 over the next five.
“I don’t know what happened in the first inning. I was using more of my arm than my body. I was a little frustrated with what I was doing and thinking too much,” Doubront said.
“But after the first inning I really focused on the strike zone. I wasn’t thinking of my mechanics at all. Just throw the ball and get quick outs to go deep in the game. I’m so proud that I did that.”
The Red Sox needed Doubront to go deep. Their primarily relievers have been worked hard over the last 10 days and the bullpen could be stressed on Sunday afternoon with John Lackey coming off the disabled list to start in the series finale.
Short of a disaster, Doubront was going to finish off that first inning. Manager John Farrell never picked up the bullpen phone.
“We needed him to get through those middle innings at a minimum,” Farrell said.
But it was ugly as the first four Astros reached. Jose Altuve singled to left before Doubront hit Brandon Barnes with a pitch. Doubront then walked Brandon Laird and Chris Carter to force in a run.
Pitching coach Juan Nieves went to the mound. The next batter, Ronny Cedeno, had a sacrifice fly to center field. Doubront then walked Carlos Corporan to reload the bases.
But he got Matt Dominguez to pop to shortstop and struck out Marwin Gonzalez to finally end the inning.
Of the 11 earned runs Doubront has allowed in his four starts, six have come in the first two innings of the game.
Farrell suggested that Doubront might want to warm up, sit down for a bit and pitch a simulated inning in the bullpen before going into the game.
“That’s not an uncommon approach guys will use,” he said.
Doubront tried his own remedy on Saturday by throwing some extra long toss in the outfield before warming up.
“I know I have to fix that,” he said.
Being down 2-0 wasn’t much of an issue for the Sox against Houston starter Brad Peacock, a rookie who came in with a 7.50 earned run average. In his first career appearance against the Sox, Peacock couldn’t get out of the fourth inning.
He allowed five runs on six hits and five walks. The Sox scored four runs in the second inning as they sent 10 batters to the plate.
Jacoby Ellsbury had a two-run single in the second inning after Jarrod Saltalamacchia walked, Will Middlebrooks doubled and Stephen Drew walked.
Dustin Pedroia kept the inning going by drawing a two-out walk. David Ortiz took advantage by driving an opposite-field double to left field. Peacock threw 42 innings in the inning.
The Sox went up, 5-2, in the fourth inning when Daniel Nava doubled, advanced on a groundout, and scored on a sacrifice fly to left by Ortiz.
Ortiz was 2 for 3 with three RBIs. He is 14 of 27 with six extra-base hits and nine RBIs in seven games since coming off the disabled list.
“No,” Ortiz said when asked if he could explain it. “I’m just doing my thing.”
Said Farrell: “We’re all recognizing that he’s doing things that look to him to be very easy. But it’s hard to script out that he would come back and have this kind of performance given the layoff.”
The Sox added three more runs in the seventh inning against reliever Hector Ambriz. Saltalamacchia doubled and Middlebrooks walked before Drew dropped an RBI single into left field.
Middlebrooks was 2 for 3 with a walk. He is 5 of his last 11 with three extra base hits, raising his batting average from .165 to .200. He seems to be pulling out of his slump.
Nava and Pedroia also had RBI singles later in the inning as the Sox went up, 8-3.
The one sour note came in the eighth inning when Daniel Bard inherited a five-run lead and walked the first two batters on nine pitches.
Farrell quickly went to Alex Wilson and the rookie held the Astros to one run. Bard pitched well in an inning on Thursday. But this latest outing was a sign that he still has work to do to overcome the control problems that started last season.
Bard is a footnote at this point. At 10 games over .500 already, the Sox don’t feel like a fluke because of how their success has been built.
“We’ve had a very good offensive approach, even on nights when we’ve only scored a few runs,” Farrell said. “Our starting pitching has been very consistent. I think we’ve played very good defensively.
“There’s still room to improve in areas. But the fact is we’ve got three areas of the game where we’re operating pretty well right now.”