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Not all the right moves

Balks a problem for Sox pitchers

Sox reliever Franklin Morales questions plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt after being called for an eighth-inning balk. Sox reliever Franklin Morales questions plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt after being called for an eighth-inning balk. (Chris O’Meara/Associated Press)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 17, 2012
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Red Sox now lead the major leagues with six balks.

That may not seem like much, but when these lapses in concentration cost you a game, you have to start wondering what the heck is going on.

Clay Buchholz balked in Tampa Bay’s first run in a 2-1 loss to the Rays Wednesday night at Tropicana Field. And Franklin Morales committed a pair of balks in back-to-back innings, but he was able to get out of both situations unscathed.

Buchholz, Morales, and Daniel Bard have two balks apiece.

What is going on?

In Buchholz’s case, Jose Molina was up with two outs and Carlos Pena at third base and Will Rhymes at first in the second inning. Buchholz said he got his cleats caught on the heavy clay and he stumbled as he was making his move from third to first. He didn’t believe there was any lapse of concentration, believing it was a physical situation.

“The balk, in my head I was going to go third to first, but my cleat sort of got caught and I tried to spin around and throw to first,’’ Buchholz said.

Pitching coach Bob McClure is watching the balks situation closely, but currently he sees no pattern, and no reason to be alarmed.

“A little surprised, yeah,’’ McClure said when asked about the balks. “I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. We’ll probably go two months without one and for some reason we’re committing them in bunches.’’

McClure and manager Bobby Valentine said all three were balks. Morales’s, in the seventh and eighth innings, were of the start-and-stop variety.

Morales has been watched closely in the past because of his pickoff move to first base. Teams have challenged Morales’s move to first in the past, but as McClure pointed out, “He does not balk, and the umpires have watched enough video of his move to know he doesn’t balk on his move to first base. In this case, he balked.’’

McClure said that of the six, there was only one he questioned. That one was by Bard, who committed two in the same game two starts ago.

“There was one I questioned when Bard was pitching that I thought there was separation from third to first,’’ McClure said. “When I looked at it again there wasn’t enough separation. If you’re the home plate umpire, if he steps to third and goes to first can you see a gap? They’re looking for clearance.’’

McClure said of the rash of balks, “Maybe we can get them out of the way.’’

Valentine, though, called the balks “an epidemic.’’ He too wasn’t happy about them but he also wasn’t concerned that this may become a bigger issue.

“I don’t get it,’’ Valentine said. “I know on Buchholz they said he hesitated on his way to first base and tripped off the mound. With Franklin it was a double stop. They were balks.

“Three different balks . . . it’s crazy.’’

Buchholz’s other balk also came against the Rays, April 14 in Boston. His two balks this season come after he committed two in his previous 78 starts. Wednesday night was the first time a Buchholz balk cost the Red Sox a run.

The three balks were the most by an American League team since Al Leiter had three for Toronto April 23, 1994 vs. the Twins. The only time the Sox have had more than three in a game was June 13, 1989 vs. Detroit when John Dopson committed four in 3 2/3 innings.

The Sox were only the third team since 1999 to commit three or more balks in a game. The Marlins did it in ’99 and the Mets in 2009.

So, it isn’t exactly something that happens every day.

While Red Sox pitching has been much better of late, balks are usually a result of not having your head in the game. The bad thing is the Red Sox now may be watched more closely. Other teams’ managers may now be putting it into the heads of umpires to watch the balking Boston pitchers.

The Bard balks were a result of trying to pay too close attention to base runners.

“McClure will address it, for sure,’’ Valentine said. “But I haven’t ever gotten gun-shy about balks.’’

One could understand how a pitcher like Bard, who has made a transition to the starting rotation, might get himself caught up in thinking too much about the runners and not so much about his footwork. But Buchholz and Morales have been around. This shouldn’t happen. At least it shouldn’t as often as it has so far after just 37 games.

Buchholz pitched well for the five-plus innings he was out there. When you give up two runs and one is on a balk, that’s a shame. Morales has pitched well in his setup role, and his balks could have been costly if the Rays had a better offense.

The Sox offense, which was productive during the recent five-game winning streak, could do very little against Jeremy Hellickson. Nor could the Sox do a thing against the Rays bullpen.

So when the offense struggles, a mistake like Buchholz’s sticks out like a sore thumb.

There are so many ways the Red Sox have found to lose this season. And now we can add a balk epidemic to the list.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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