FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Yes, Casey Kelly looks like a future star and yours truly is as amped about Kelly as anyone, but to paraphrase Bill Parcells, let's not start clearing space for him in Cooperstown yet because he mowed down the Northeastern Huskies. Kelly was certainly the most-celebrated Sox pitching prospect to take the mound yesterday, but he wasn't the one most likely to help the team this season.
Lanky lefthander Dustin Richardson also pitched against the Huskies in the first game of the Red Sox' back-to-school special. Richardson is a name to remember because he is that rarest of baseball species -- a hard-throwing lefthanded reliever who is murder on lefthanded batters.
If you're lefthanded and can get lefties out, there is always a place for you in the big leagues; it doesn't matter if your stuff is as hard as a bowl of Baskin-Robbins ice cream (see: Fossas, Tony). The Red Sox have lefty Hideki Okajima, but he is too valuable as a bridge to Jonathan Papelbon to use as a matchup lefty. So the Sox are searching for another reliever who has the right stuff to retire lefties.
Richardson, who after being converted to a reliever last year skyrocketed through the organization to earn a September call-up, could be just that.
The former Texas Tech Red Raider held lefties to a .170 average in 45 relief appearances last season between Double A Portland and Triple A Pawtucket. Overall, he was 2-2 with a 2.55 ERA and four saves in the minors and struck out 96 batters (while walking 42) in 74 innings. He made his big league debut on Sept. 28 against the Toronto Blue Jays and tossed 1 1/3 shutout innings. In all, he appeared in three games for the Sox and didn't allow a run in 3 1/3 innings.
"Well, they've definitely had talks with me to let me know that there is a spot right now in the bullpen," said Richardson, after a scoreless inning against the Huskies. "Right now, what I'm trying to do is put myself in the best situation and go out there and do what I've always done and just try to have a good spring training and try to finish strong and we'll see at the end."
The 26-year-old Richardson's competition includes lefty Brian Shouse and veteran righthanders Scott Atchison (career .222 opponents' batting average against lefties) and Joe Nelson, who has held lefties to a career .215 average.
Having to audition for a spot on a team is nothing new for the Kansas native and 2006 fifth-round pick. In 2006, the 6-foot, 6-inch Richardson was one of the 16 participants/contestants on the ESPN reality TV program "Knight School" in which all-time NCAA men's Division 1 basketball wins leader Bob Knight channeled Simon Cowell to fill a spot on the Texas Tech hoops team.
If Richardson could deal with the demanding demeanor of the irascible Robert Montgomery Knight, the pressure of pitching in Fenway won't phase him.
"It was a good time. If I could do it all over again I wish I could because the first day I rolled both of my ankles, but other than that it was a great experience," said Richardson. "Coach Knight has always been an idol of mine, and just being on the court with him was surreal. He's one of the smartest men you'll ever meet."
Richardson, who remains a huge Kansas Jayhawks fan ("rock, chalk, Jayhawk basketball, 100 percent") advanced to the finals of the show, but Knight wanted someone who could practice with the team the following season, and Richardson planned to enter the major league baseball draft.
"That was basically what it came down to that I play baseball, and I was going to go into the draft and he needed a guy to work out and practice with the team," said Richardson. "I wasn't coming back so Ty [Tyler Hoffmeister] was the better fit for that program at the time."
Knight, who works for ESPN as an analyst now, is best known for pitching fits -- who can forget his famous chair toss while coaching Indiana? -- but he also has a keen interest in baseball, Richardson said.
"He is a huge baseball fan," said Richardson. "He and Tony LaRussa are friends, really good friends."
How fitting, since it's LaRussa who popularized the type of specialization that could lead to a roster spot with the Red Sox for Richardson.
Outside of short-season Single A Lowell, where fledgling pro pitchers are handled with care, Richardson had done nothing but start in the Sox organization before last year's switch . In 2007 and 2008, he appeared in 49 games in the minors and they were all starts. In 2008, Richardson was 7-10 with a 6.33 ERA at Portland, but he struck out 114 batters in 106 2/3 innings.
Don't ask him if he has developed a reliever's mentality.
"I'll always have one mentality that's pretty much to just attack the hitters," he said. "As far as the preparation, I've come a long ways, and I feel like more of a reliever in that sense. Basically, it's just warm-up and go out there and throw."
Richardson said he still thinks he could be successful as a starter, especially as he continues to work with Sox pitching coach John Farrell to refine his fastball command and harness his hard curveball and changeup. But he's also realistic in recognizing the bullpen is his boarding pass for the big leagues.
"That's the thing that's going to put me on a faster track to the bigs," Richardson said. "It's Boston. You're not going to exactly fit in that starting rotation, and I have no complaints right now being a reliever. It doesn't matter. It's definitely where you want to be."
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.