Felix Doubront broke camp with the rest of the club, and took the mound as the Red Sox' starter in their fourth game of the season. But the Red Sox pitching braintrust hardly saw the 25-year-old lefty as a finished product coming out of spring training.
After his initial start, he waited 11 days before his next. Two of his next three appearances came with six days between outings, then came a 13-day break during which he was skipped altogether in favor of rookie righty Allen Webster, and Doubront had made only five starts by the time Jon Lester made his ninth.
All the while, manager John Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves were insistent that the southpaw still fit into their plans, and that his stuff was still good, but they needed him to continue working on some things between appearances in order to become more consistent. They weren't entirely comfortable with letting him do that while still taking the ball every fifth day.
But now they're handing it to him eagerly.
When he was bypassed in favor of Webster on May 8, Doubront was sent to the bullpen in case the Sox needed a long man that night - and it turned out they did. Webster gave up eight runs while recording only five outs, so Doubront was summoned in the second inning. And though he himself was subsequently tagged for six runs on 11 hits, he stayed out there for 5 1/3 innings of experimentation, which now seems like it might've been just what he needed.
Since then he has posted a 2.87 earned run average over 10 starts, none of which has seen him yield more than three earned runs in a single effort. That's the longest such streak for a Sox starter in at least two years, and was extended when he picked up his fifth win of the year with 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball on Friday night at Los Angeles.
"He was outstanding tonight," Farrell told reporters afterward. "Once again, he works deep in the ballgame. I think this was about 10 straight starts for him where he's not only kept us in the ballgame, but in a position to win. He was on the plate with his fastball much more consistently. Very good changeup. It was a solid performance for Felix."
It was the consistency that Farrell sought near the start of the year - and it's what Doubront is beginning to show, not just start to start, but pitch to pitch. His average fastball is down 2.4 mph from where it was a year ago (92.8 versus 90.4), though that's not costing him because he's commanding it well and doing a better job of effectively playing it off his other pitches.
He's increasingly using his curveball and his changeup to create swings-and-misses, and the effectiveness of those secondary pitches was evident Friday night. Of his five strikeouts, three came on changeups, and a fourth via a cutter.
"He's got more command with his off-speed stuff," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia told masslive.com. "The changeup's a big pitch, 3-2 counts, 3-1 counts on big hitters. He's definitely become more of a complete pitcher, you can't really sit on one pitch."
Part of becoming a more complete pitcher involves getting deeper into games, and Doubront's apparent improvements have helped him there, too. Last year he averaged just 5.5 innings per start, and he was slightly worse than that at the start of this year. However, Doubront has completed at least six frames in seven of his last nine outings, and pitched into the seventh or later in three of his last four starts.
Worth noting there is that since May 16 he's typically needed 16.8 pitches to complete an inning. That number was 18.9 earlier this season, and 18.0 dating back to the start of last year. With effectiveness has come efficiency, and with efficiency comes reliability. Doubront has certainly become reliable.
So much so, they have little reservation about handing him the ball Wednesday in Seattle - a mere five days after doing it last.
- - - - - -
If Red Sox fans were holding hope that free-agent-to-be Jacoby Ellsbury might be in the market to sign a one-year deal with Boston in order to rebuild his value, particularly after a mediocre start, that hopes has been evaporating since May 26.
Even despite straining his groin during that stretch, the center fielder has hit .386 over that span, with a .971 on-base plus slugging and 20 stolen bases in 21 attempts. In 32 games he's scored 28 runs, and he's reached base at a .435 clip.
Teammate Jose Iglesias is the only American League hitter with a higher batting average during that time, while nobody has else more than 14 steals, and by taking a 15-game hitting streak into Saturday night, Ellsbury had a .302 average and 34 steals for the season. Overall he's had a hit in 67 of his 81 games this season - putting him on pace for 193 safeties by the end of the year - and he hasn't gone 0-for in more than two games in a row.Don't worry, though, Sox fans: Jackie Bradley Jr. is hitting .298 with a .917 OPS for Pawtucket.
- - - - - -
Iglesias registered his team-leading 20th infield hit of the season on Friday, and left his 43rd game of the season with a .410 average. By Saturday the sample size was up to 159 plate appearances, and to put how long this run of excellence has now reached, consider this: During the best 43-game stretch of Dustin Pedroia's 2008 MVP season, he hit .396.
- - - - - -
Stat of the week: According to baseball-reference.com's formula, only 23 AL position players have been worth at least 2.3 wins above replacement (WAR) this season - and five of them are Red Sox: Pedroia (4.4), Ellsbury (3.0), Iglesias, Shane Victorino and David Ortiz (all 2.3). Despite not having pitched in a month, the calculations also say Clay Buchholz (4.0) has been the AL's second-most valuable pitcher.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.