Penny has earned his keep
ATLANTA - Suddenly, Brad Penny looks like a heck of a lot more than just bait. In fact, he looks more like a very big fish.
“We didn’t sign him to trade him,’’ Red Sox manager Terry Francona said yesterday of Penny, who will take the mound this afternoon when the Red Sox and Braves conclude a three-game series at Turner Field. “We signed him to win. He’s worked hard. I only think it’s going to continue to get better.’’
Penny’s recent history in Atlanta aside - he is 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA in his last six starts here and has an 8.35 ERA in his last four starts against the Braves overall - his value to the Red Sox is indeed growing. Daisuke Matsuzaka is on the disabled list. A 42-year-old John Smoltz is working his way back from surgery. Tim Wakefield turns 43 Aug. 2 and Clay Buchholz remains a great unknown, no matter how many wins he records at Triple A.
The point? Already, Penny has been far more valuable to the Red Sox than people might think. And though the Red Sox almost certainly will have needs when the July 31 trading deadline approaches, Penny has more value to them in a Boston uniform than he does in anyone else’s.
If there was an urge to move him at some point, there certainly should not be one now.
“I’m glad they haven’t traded him and I hope they don’t,’’ said Red Sox ace Josh Beckett, who was also a teammate of Penny on the Florida Marlins. “People talk about him being a No. 5 starter. I want you to show me the teams who have four starters better than that guy.’’
OK, we checked.
Since his home-opening stinker against Baltimore, Penny has made 12 starts and posted a 4.12 ERA, a number that ranked 27th among qualifying American League pitchers during that span, entering yesterday. On average, that means there have been fewer than two pitchers per team who have pitched more effectively than Penny, a group that excludes every Red Sox starter except Beckett (3.48 ERA).
In his last three starts especially, Penny has been a bull. His fastball routinely has touched 95-96 miles per hour, and he has pitched with confidence and aggression. When the Yankees were at Fenway Park this month, aware that New York pitchers were plunking Boston batters at a far more alarming rate than the other way around - at the time, that count was 9-2 in favor of New York - Penny drilled Alex Rodriguez with one out and first base open in the top of the first. New York failed to score in the inning or at all against Penny, who contributed six shutout innings to a 4-3 win.
In subsequent outings, Penny has looked no less determined or healthy, the latter of which has been supported by the radar guns in the wake of a 2008 season during which Penny made just 17 starts.
Whatever issues he had then, they are gone now.
Physically and mentally.
“I dealt with some of that last year,’’ said Beckett, who had difficulty reclaiming his edge after experiencing discomfort in his elbow late in the season. “There’s always that bit of doubt. The only way to clear that up is to go out there and feel healthy. Smoltz is going through that now.’’
As for the manner in which Penny has assimilated into the Red Sox clubhouse, let him serve as Exhibit A for the argument that timing is everything. Last season, in the final year of a three-year, $25.5 million contract with the Dodgers, Penny effectively bottomed out. The Dodgers declined to pick up an $8.75 million option, making him a free agent. After Penny, 31, agreed to terms with the Red Sox, Dodgers coach Larry Bowa popped off during spring training about Penny’s laziness, all but calling him a complete waste of talent.
In what is anything but a coincidence, Francona has spent some time lately praising Penny’s work ethic and attitude, repeatedly calling him a “good teammate.’’ (Drilling A-Rod didn’t hurt.) The Red Sox certainly seem happy to have him. Given some of the other issues that have affected the Boston pitching staff, Penny is starting to look like a true find.
“You kind of hear this stuff,’’ Francona said when asked about Penny’s reputation, speaking less specifically about Bowa (who wore out his welcome as manager of the Phillies) and more about Penny’s general reputation. “Now that he’s here, he isn’t that guy. This kid’s solid. He works [very hard]. He takes responsibility.’’
In that regard, one can only wonder about the influence of Beckett, as no-nonsense a personality as there ever has been in the Boston clubhouse. From the time he was drafted by the Marlins, Beckett has had a reputation as a relentless worker. He treats every outing like a prize fight. In his mind, he spends four days preparing for the right to pitch on the fifth, meaning that a poor outing can undermine nearly a week’s worth of effort.
Back when they were both with the Marlins, Beckett remembers Penny possessing uncanny natural ability and strength, the latter of which brought Penny a great deal of success. If it is true that work habits were an issue, there may have been some explanation. For much of his career, Penny was so much bigger and stronger than everyone else that he probably didn’t need to work as hard.
Maybe now, for lack of a better word, he is maturing.
“I don’t know if it’s maturity or what,’’ said Beckett. “He’s starting to realize that the work between starts gets you to that fifth day. If you don’t perform, you’re going to get [angry] at yourself.
“I think he’s more comfortable here. I think he’s more comfortable with the personnel and the way things are done here . . . The guy’s always been one of the naturally strongest guys I’ve been around. He could walk in the weight room and say, ‘Put as many plates on as you want,’ and he’d do as many reps as you wanted him to do.’’
These days, Penny is doing reps of a different kind. Every five days, he is taking the ball from Francona and giving the Red Sox a chance to win. Boston is 9-5 in his 14 starts. Maybe Penny is merely responding like a competitive man coming off an unfulfilling season. Maybe he is simply in the right place at the right time. Maybe he is pitching for a new contract, to rebuild his reputation, to prove that he is something more than a No. 5 starter.
In the end, the motivation does not really matter.
Regardless, the Red Sox won’t trade the results.