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When Michael Bowden was asked to move into a relief role just a few weeks ago after spending his entire career as a starter, he embraced it as an opportunity to impact the major league club. Though he had been performing well as a starter prior to his move to the bullpen, it appears Felix Doubront has passed him on the starting pitcher depth chart and this would be his best chance to help the club.
“Last year against the Yankees was the first time that I had ever pitched out of the bullpen,” the 23-year-old said while still with Pawtucket. “It’s still something new to me. I felt like I adapted fairly quickly last year when I got the opportunity to go up there and pitch in relief. It was exciting – every time the phone rang your heart skipped a beat with the adrenaline rush. I really enjoyed my time in the bullpen last year so I’m excited about this move.”
Bowden was drafted out of high school in the first round of the 2005 draft. Since being drafted, he has been known for his hard work and excellent pitching instincts. He moved quickly through the system, reaching Double-A Portland by the age of 20, and the major leagues at 21.
His pitching statistics throughout his minor league time have been great, highlighted by a 2.33 ERA in 19 starts with Portland in 2008 and a 3.13 ERA in his time with Pawtucket last season. However, there have always been questions about whether his stuff is good enough to get major league hitters out with regularity. His arsenal features: an 88-92 mph four-seam fastball that can top out around 94 mph, an average 12-6 breaking curve, a circle change-up, and an 83-85 mph slider that he added in 2009. He has relied on the slider much more over the past season-plus, and especially in the relief role.
His fastball command has always been his biggest asset and the question in regards to him starting is whether or not his secondary pitches would improve enough to make him a viable major-league starter. The lack of dominant secondary stuff is one reason a move to the bullpen is logical.
Over the last off-season, Bowden worked with the Red Sox coaching staff, including John Farrell, to improve his delivery, which had been described as too robotic. He also wanted to connect the mechanics of his upper-half with his lower-half, in order to be more fluid.
To begin the season, those mechanical changes caused him some problems, and the results showed. On May 31, Bowden was 1-2 with a 5.83 ERA. Including his start that day until July 2, his final start before transitioning into the bullpen, he went 3-1 with an ERA of 1.83 in 7 starts. He said during that stretch that it was simply a matter of finding consistency with his new mechanics.
“I’ve made a few changes and now I’m getting to the point where my mechanics are becoming more consistent and I’m able to repeat them,” Bowden said during that stretch. “I’ve got the foundation now and it’s just feeling a lot more comfortable. I’m able to make adjustments pitch-to-pitch, so it’s encouraging.”
When asked to move to the bullpen he put up little fight though, reinforcing his reputation as a team-first player, saying, “With this ballclub and the starting rotation, I figured this would be my best opportunity to help the ballclub.”
He made his first relief appearance on July 7, and pitched a total of 6 scoreless innings while giving up only 1 hit over 4 appearances out of the bullpen before getting the call. His last appearance in Pawtucket was particularly noteworthy, as he came in with the bases loaded and no outs in the eighth (his first chance to get a “dirty inning,” as Theo Epstein referred to it) and finished the inning without allowing any inherited runners to score, and then pitched a scoreless ninth to earn his first professional save.
Its no surprise Bowden got his ticket to The Show soon after that outing.
While Terry Francona admitted that a specific role has yet to be outlined for Bowden, it seems clear they are hoping he can bridge the gap from the starter to Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. In an ideal world, he would be the multiple inning middle relief man the team has lacked since dealing away Justin Masterson.
“We don’t want to hide him and have him pitch the third inning of blowout games,” Francona said. “We think there’s a chance this kid can really help us win some games.”
If he is able to succeed in this role, he could impact the club in that they would not have to give up legitimate prospects for the volatile position that is relief pitching. Preventing a disastrous trade, such as the one for Eric Gagne a few years back, could play a significant role in this club’s future.
He made his first big-league appearance of the year on Sunday, pitching the top of the ninth against the Texas Rangers in a game the Sox trailed 4-1. He retired the side in order, while picking up 2 strikeouts. A few more appearances like that and he could be on his way to saving the Red Sox from having the explore the ever-ambiguous relief trade market.