Problem with steals put on hold

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / May 26, 2010

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Carl Crawford singled with one out in the bottom of the first inning for the Tampa Bay Rays Monday night and he didn’t try to steal second base.

For the Red Sox, that was something to be proud of.

Crawford had five chances, too. But Clay Buchholz tried four pickoff throws to keep him close and made sure his delivery to the plate was quick enough to serve as another deterrent.

Crawford did not score when the next hitter, Ben Zobrist, singled to center. Buchholz was able to get through the inning unscathed and went on to pitch six strong innings in a 6-1 victory.

“It’s something I’ve been working on,’’ said Buchholz. “I think we all have been, and it’s paying off. You can see the difference.’’

The Sox had allowed 50 stolen bases, the most in the majors. But 38 came during the first 19 games of the season, when only two runners were caught.

The Sox allowed only 12 steals (in 20 attempts) in the 28 games that followed.

The low point came April 20 at Fenway Park when Texas stole nine bases without being caught. Slow-moving slugger Vladimir Guerrero, who had stolen two bases in the entire 2009 season, had two that night.

The Sox held what amounted to an organizational intervention shortly thereafter, vowing to find ways to control the running game. The catchers, pitchers, and coaches were all involved.

The pitchers improved the speed of the delivery to give the catchers a better chance. In some cases, that meant more frequent use of the slide-step. The Sox also encouraged their pitchers to hold the ball longer to try to break the rhythm of the runner.

“The catchers get a lot of the blame because people keep stats on their throws. But it was our fault as much as theirs,’’ Buchholz said. “We all had to improve what we were doing.’’

Manager Terry Francona said the Sox didn’t change anything radically, but they worked harder at improving the methods they had in place.

“Our guys have done a really good job. When we went through that really tough period, and it was tough, our pitchers did a really good job of not pointing fingers. They were like, ‘OK, how can we help?’ And they have,’’ he said. “They’ve done a really good job. Things settled down a little bit.’’

Catcher Victor Martinez put in extra time working on his throwing with catching instructor Gary Tuck. That helped cut down on how many throws were going awry, along with improving the speed of his release.

“We had gotten to a point there for a while where we just had to sit down and figure it out,’’ Francona said. “Victor was out there working, and that’s hard to work as hard as he was when you’re catching that many games.’’

The hitters even played a role. Teams are more likely to risk an out by running when they have the lead. Once the Sox started hitting, that made it more difficult for teams to take chances.

“Overall we’re playing better,’’ Buchholz said. “I think everything contributes to it. Teams felt like they wanted to run on us before and now they don’t.’’

The Sox simplified the process by having Buchholz and most of the other pitchers throw to first only at the direction of bench coach DeMarlo Hale. Some of the pitchers had become so consumed with holding runners that it was detracting from the quality of their pitches.

“We want that part of the game to come from the dugout,’’ Francona said. “[The pitchers] always have a right to do things. But we try to take that responsibility so they can concentrate on what they need to.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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