On baseball

Foulke's health still a sore spot

By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / June 15, 2005
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It was David Wells's night, but the bonus for the Red Sox is that the Keith Foulke who resurfaced last night after barely pitching for a week bore a strong resemblance to the Keith Foulke who owned last October.

Funny how three days -- three well-pitched games by Sox starters, home runs in all three by Manny Ramirez, and last night a dominating ninth inning by Foulke (11 pitches, 10 strikes) -- can make a off-and-on team look like a club that will blow by Baltimore before the All-Star break and win the division by a Secretariat margin.

It helps, of course, when the opposition is Cincinnati. The Reds have morphed from the Big Red Machine that broke Boston hearts in 1975 into a malfunctioning, misguided mess that has been outscored, 17-3, over the last two days and has offered little of interest other than a possible audition last night by reliever David Weathers, who struck out two of the three batters he faced and is certain to attract attention at the trading deadline.

Foulke, meanwhile, had been showing up in box scores lately about as often as Ramón Vázquez, the seldom-used benchman. His last save came June 5, when he nailed down a 6-3 win over the Angels, and he pitched just once on the swing through St. Louis and Chicago, when the Sox lost four of six games.

Considering how he grouses when he doesn't get regular work, even if it means the odd mopup assignment, the suspicion was raised that maybe all wasn't right with Foulke. And it wasn't.

Foulke's back problems, which flared up on at least two occasions last season, once causing him to miss a game in late August, had returned. Not that he would admit it, of course. This is, after all, the pitcher who claimed he went to Alabama for barbecue, his idea of a cute cover story for the visit he made with pitching coach Dave Wallace to the Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham for a tuneup of his mechanics.

''I felt good today," he said when asked about the back.

But wasn't it an issue over the last week, since he hadn't pitched since last Wednesday in St. Louis?

''Go talk to someone else," he said. ''I don't talk about health. There haven't been many situations [to pitch]. I've been doing side work and long-toss."

He was slightly more forthcoming about a story in Sunday's Newark Star-Ledger that said Foulke spurned the Sox' request last winter that he undergo arthroscopic knee surgery. A club source confirmed that the possibility of a scope had been discussed but insisted that the club did not ''necessarily" make a recommendation and left the matter up to Foulke.

''I was supposed to have that done before," Foulke said. ''We talked about doing it last year, but after the World Series there wasn't enough . . . Naah, we didn't do it. So much [expletive] went on at the end of the year, when it was time to go, it was time to go."

Well, that clears that up.

The club source did say that the team considered Foulke's physical issues your normal ''aches and pains," and did not see any linkage between either his back or knees to his struggles earlier this season.

The back had been a problem when Foulke was in Oakland, too: It stiffened on him before Game 4 of the 2003 AL Division Series against the Sox, when David Ortiz hit a decisive, two-out, two-run double, and reportedly he was unavailable in Game 5. There were times the discomfort was so great the A's would change his hotel room in search of a firmer mattress. But they were sufficiently unconcerned about his back to make a serious run at retaining Foulke before being outbid by the Sox after the season.

If Foulke has resolved his mechanical issues, he isn't saying. ''I don't talk mechanics anymore. I was happy with the way I threw the ball today. For not throwing for a while, you know I had pretty good command. That's it."

There certainly doesn't seem to be anything wrong with Foulke's arm. His first pitch last night, to Joe Randa, was clocked at 91 miles an hour, a half-dozen miles an hour faster than gun readings earlier in the season.

''I saw some at 86, too," he said. ''I don't worry about velocity. I don't worry about any of that stuff anymore. I go out and throw the ball. All that worrying crap is done. That was the beginning of the year."

Foulke had a heavy workload last October, appearing in 11 of the team's 14 postseason games. Counting the postseason, Foulke threw 97 innings, the most he has thrown in any season since 1999, when he was a setup man with the White Sox. He will be 33 Oct. 19. Inevitably, there is wear and tear, but so far, it has been nothing Foulke can't tolerate.

Does it bear watching? He'd dismiss the notion as quickly as he upbraided someone for calling him a closer.

''I'm not a closer," he said. ''I'm a bullpen guy. Very rarely, if ever, you'll hear me call me a closer.

''The one thing I love to do is go pitch. That's the one thing I love to do -- pitch and drive cars."

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