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Plan is to lower a steal curtain

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Red Sox allowed 123 stolen bases last season, the most in baseball. Would-be base stealers succeeded 79.9 percent of the time, the best rate in the big leagues.

Raw data may tell an incomplete tale, but it's difficult to dispute how much the 2004 club struggled to cool opposing teams' running games.

"Everybody has been made aware of it," said pitching coach Dave Wallace.

The good news? The gravest offender of all, Derek Lowe, is no longer with the team. Runners stole 34 bases in 36 attempts (94 percent) in 2004 with Lowe on the mound. They swiped 6 of 7 on Curt Schilling (86 percent), 33 of 41 (81 percent) against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, 19 of 24 (79 percent) on Pedro Martinez, and 4 of 9 (44 percent) against Bronson Arroyo.

Against the five-man rotation, opponents stole 96 times in 117 opportunities (82 percent).

The new additions arrive with similar statistics. Base thieves were perfect (8 for 8) running on Wade Miller in 2004 and near perfect (16 of 18) against Matt Clement. They were 5 for 8 against David Wells.

"You can tell whether pitchers are good or not on attempts alone," catcher Jason Varitek explained yesterday. "Just throw away the success rate. How many innings did Pedro pitch? Two-hundred plus? Twenty-four attempts out of 200-plus innings? That's a pretty low percentage. So your burners are taking off on him.

"You start getting attempts up in the 40s and 50s, you're getting everybody and their mother running."

Varitek's explanation strikes at the core of one of Terry Francona's spring training themes. He knows that one in five Sox games last season was decided by one run, and his team went just 16-18 in those games. The theory: Keep runners in place and win more games.

Easier said than done.

"It is, because of the psyche involved and how much is made of it," Wallace said. "What you have to find out is, how do you divide that fine line between controlling the running game yet still having good stuff when they deliver the ball home?"

Here are the ways Francona and Wallace will assess improvement:

* Time to the plate.

Teams clock how long it takes a pitcher to deliver the ball to home plate.

"If you're 1.3 [seconds], you're good enough," Francona said. The Sox last year had at least two pitchers significantly slower.

"Derek was our worst," Francona said. "Wakefield got into some situations last year where he wasn't pitching like he wanted to. He was leaning back [in his delivery]. He was 1.7 to the plate. He's very aware of that."

Given the knuckleball factor, it's a safe assumption teams will continue to run on Wakefield with regularity. But he promises to be quicker.

"My whole mechanics were messed up," Wakefield said. "I was a lot slower to the plate. Your [established] base stealer is going to steal bases anyway."

What needs to end, Wakefield said, is the "non-base stealers that are taking off, getting into scoring position, when I could have prevented it."

Among the incoming pitchers, Clement has a noticeably prolonged delivery.

"That'll be interesting," Francona said. "Some of that we think we can help."

* Giving the runner varying looks.

"Maybe give them two or three looks, or even four looks, or stare at them for a little bit and then go home," said John Halama, who ranks as one of the league's best at controlling the running game. "Sometimes I don't even need to throw over. Then he's leaning back and he's thinking, `Is he going to throw over?' "

If you're a fan of quick games, you're not a fan of that statement. But, if the crowd is getting fed up with a pitcher throwing to first, he's probably doing a decent job, Halama said.

"If you can hold the ball and change your motion, you're going to give Doug [Mirabelli] and me more than ample enough time," Varitek said. "That's what guys have to learn to do.

"A guy could be great, could be 1.1 to the plate, but if he gets into a pattern when he throws, guys take off on time. There's a fine line between being quick and being efficient at what you're doing."

* Not losing track of the job at hand.

That job is getting the batter out. Often, concentration and mechanics suffer with men on base. Pitching becomes more complicated. For example, bench coach Brad Mills relays signs to Varitek that the catcher communicates to the pitcher.

"There were a couple times last year when some pitcher would give up a home run and Millsy would look at me and go, `I gave him the slide step. It's on me,' " Francona said. "Point being, a guy slide steps, leaves a fastball up, guy crushes it.

"When Dave Roberts was acquired, I thought that directly led to a couple of wins. They were trying to hold him so much they forgot about the hitter, we hit the ball off the wall, we win."

In Lowe's case, he didn't so much lose track of the hitter as he made his job more difficult.

"If you're a ground ball guy, you don't want to give them second base because you're a ground ball away from being out of the inning," Varitek said. "[Derek] could have been out of a lot of innings with a double play. Hopefully, he becomes mindful of that."

Plus, whenever someone is running, someone else is vacating his position to cover the base, opening holes.

Finally, though Varitek won't admit it, he'd probably like to throw out a few more guys. Among American League starting catchers, he ranked last in runners caught stealing in 2004 at 23 percent (23 of 100).

"It's not about me," he said. "It's not about my ego. I've learned over time, if it comes down to [the pitchers] being slow or fast, and them being quality and slow, I'll take them being slow."

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