Bowden will let it slide
Righthander adds pitch to repertoire
Michael Bowden barely noticed that he had carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning Wednesday night in Pawtucket. Bowden is 22 years old, but his focus belies his youth. He walked four batters by the time he had recorded two outs in the seventh, and pitching around that trouble superseded the number in the hit column. "I think the four walks kind of offset the no hits," Bowden said.
Bowden's disposition, as well as a solid repertoire of pitches to which he added a slider this season, has made him one of the best pitchers in the minor leagues. His 1.01 ERA leads the International League. In 26 2/3 innings, he has allowed 23 base runners and struck out 19.
Bowden yielded an RBI double in the seventh Wednesday, breaking up his no-hit attempt against Toledo after 6 2/3. The Mud Hens won the game, 2-1.
Bowden's scorching start came after a disappointing performance in the Red Sox' major league camp this spring. He struggled with his control and posted a 7.59 ERA in two starts.
"In spring training, I was working on a few kinks in my delivery," Bowden said. "Yes, I was a little discouraged. I got a lot of good work done, even though the numbers don't show it. I was happy as far as that goes. I just need to keep the ball down a little bit. In big league camp when I was getting hit around I wasn't throwing my offspeed pitches for strikes. I knew stuff would fall into place."
Before reporting to the minor league complex, Bowden met with Red Sox officials about what he was missing. His two-seam fastball and changeup both ran in toward righthanded batters, and his curveball broke straight down, "12 to 6," Bowden said. He needed a pitch that would break away from righthanders - like a slider.
"It was a totally new pitch for me," Bowden said.
He threw it for the first time not in the bullpen, but during a minor league spring game. Since then, he's tried three grips for the slider, and he experimented with a fourth this week while playing catch with Clay Buchholz.
"It's still a work in progress," Bowden said. "It's showed improvement. I've just got to stick with it. I'm not expecting immediate results, but I'm getting some positive results."
The pitch helped him Wednesday, when he outdueled rehabbing major leaguer Dontrelle Willis. Bowden threw 15 to 18 sliders against Toledo, more than his curveball. Though only five to seven were strikes, the pitch still had a purpose.
"Seeing the hitters up there, I see what they were saying about going away from a righty," Bowden said. "It just gives the hitter another thing to think about. So that's in the back of their mind."
When Bowden came in from the bullpen April 26 during a one-day cameo in Boston against the Yankees, Jason Varitek greeted him on the mound. "So, I hear you've got a slider now?" Varitek asked him. Bowden said yes, but explained he was not fully confident in controlling it. "Don't worry," Varitek said. "I'll stop it."
Bowden never had a chance to use the slider in his two innings against the Yankees because he consistently fell behind in the count and relied on two- and four-seam fastballs. If he continues pitching like he is, he'll have another chance to throw his slider at Fenway before long.
Buchholz is biding his time with Pawtucket after the Red Sox chose Brad Penny over him to be their fifth starter this spring. Buchholz dominated in the spring, and in his most recent two starts he's made good on that promise. In his last 11 1/3 innings, Buchholz has allowed one earned run on five hits, lowering his ERA to 1.80. In 20 innings overall, he has 18 strikeouts. Buchholz's consistency has him hopeful of rejoining the big club soon.
"If I do what I have to do to be ready to pitch every fifth day, and everything keeps going as planned, I stay healthy, it's only a matter of time, I believe," Buchholz said. "I'm looking forward to that call. I'll be ready whenever they do give me it."
Buchholz pitched in the Red Sox' starting rotation last year before two late-season demotions, and entered spring training hoping for a chance to earn back a spot. Buchholz knew early it would be difficult.
"I knew what was going on even before they told me," Buchholz said. "It's hard to spend $5 million [Penny's salary] and say, 'Well, he's doing a little bit better than you, so we're going to let him take the spot.' I know what's going on in this game. Everybody always get their chance, whether they make the best of it or not. I had a lot of chances last year, and that's why I'm here right now, I believe. Everything down here is going good, though."