Durable Dempster delivering for Red Sox

photo Leon Halip/Getty Images

Jan-Christian Sorensen
Contributing Writer

Durable hurler Ryan Dempster delivered again for the Red Sox Thursday night at Rogers Centre in Toronto, lifting Boston to a 3-1 victory — and the team’s league-leading 20th of the season.

The 35-year-old tossed a six-inning, four-hit game on 100 pitches, striking out four and walking three to lower his ERA to 3.00 while evening his record to 2-2.

Like a bachelor party in Vegas, Dempster was flirting with trouble all night, but the savvy veteran came through in the clutch on several occasions. In the first inning Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie took a pitch deep to center field for an early 1-0 lead, but Dempster was able to coax an inning-ending double play out of Edwin Encarnacion to escape further damage. In the third inning he walked three to load the bases with one out but again was able to elicit a twin killing off Encarnacion’s bat to stymie the potential rally.

Dempster then retired nine of the next 10 men he faced before handing the ball off to the bullpen in the seventh.

“He didn’t have his best stuff overall tonight but he uses the whole count when he needs to,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “He’s got the knack to not let the game speed up on him and try to reach back and just go with sheer velocity… veteran presence and experience shines through in those situations.”

Dempster, who hails from Gibsons, British Columbia, had a dose of national pride on the line as it was his first time making a start in Toronto. According to mlb.com, Dempster is the first Canadian-born Sox pitcher to start and win a game in their home country since Rheal Cormier accomplished the feat at SkyDome in 1995 — the same year Dempster was drafted by Texas in the third round. When he surrendered the first-inning blast to Lawrie, Dempster lost the opening salvo in what could have been billed the “Battle of British Columbia” — Lawrie, drafted in 2008 by Milwaukee, hails from Langley, B.C., while Dempster’s hometown is about a three-hour drive and ferry trip north in a rugged-but-laidback area known as the Sunshine Coast.

Dempster was victorious the next two times the Canadians locked antlers, however, inducing Lawrie to pop out to Mike Carp in foul territory in the third and then get called out on strikes in the fifth.

“I was struggling to find it early on in the first few innings and I was able to start getting the ball down and make some pitches,” said Dempster, who signed a two-year, 26.5-million contract to anchor the middle of the Boston rotation last December. “The leadoff homer probably woke me up a bit.”

The four strikeouts recorded by Dempster in the game brought his season total to 47 — tied for third in the league with teammate Clay Buchholz, L.A.’s Clayton Kershaw and the Cubs’ Justin Samardzija — coincidentally, a pitcher Dempster mentored while he stationed at Wrigley Field from 2004 to 2012.

Dempster began his career with the Florida Marlins in 1998, rubbing shoulders with future Red Sox such as Kevin Millar, Mike Lowell, Alex Gonzalez and Mark Kotsay. Ironically, he notched his first career win against the Sox that June, allowing only one run in seven frames. He was named an All-Star in 2000 and went on to post a 14-10 record with a 3.66 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 226 innings of work for the Fish that year.

Ryan Dempster in 2000 (Jan-Christian Sorensen photo)
He returned to Vancouver in the offseason that year a fresh-faced 23-year-old burdened with lofty expectations for the future — but tempered by his humble upbringing and genuine sense of gratitude that his dedication and determination had begun to pay off.

“It’s funny, when we go out during the season with all the guys we can’t go eat dinner without talking about baseball,” said Dempster, at the time. “It’s just the way it is. You’re always trying to learn and get better, because until you go hit 1.000 or go 35-0 there’s always room for improvement.”

His former youth league coach, Dave Empey, said at the time that he never had any doubts that Dempster would break into and be successful at the major league level.

“I always used to tell the scouts ‘You’re going to get the complete package with this guy. He’s physically, mentally and emotionally mature’,” said Empey. “People say ‘Are you surprised he made it?’ and I say ‘No, why can’t a guy from (Canada) make it just as well as a guy from California? It you’ve got the ability and you get the coaching and the competition and you’re willing to do the work you can make it.”

Dempster pitched for Cincinnati for two seasons before being signed by the Cubs in 2004, where he continued to establish his reputation as a solid clubhouse citizen, frequent on-camera comic relief — impersonating longtime Cubbies broadcast legend Harry Caray on a regular basis — and all-around merry prankster.

But his resolve to toe the rubber and command the plate never wavered — even after two trips down to the minors while in the Windy City in 2004 and ‘07. He came back even stronger, going 53-41 over the next three seasons before being dealt back to the Rangers at the trade deadline last year. In Texas, Dempster went 7-3 with a 5.09 ERA in what was his first stint in the American League during a 14-year-career.

“He is a grinder, a real pro,” said teammate John Lackey when Dempster was signed by the Sox. “There’s a lot of respect for Ryan around the game. He gets after it.”

If his reputation as a reliable workhorse and innings-eater didn’t immediately win over Red Sox Nation when he was introduced at his press conference in December, his transparency and honesty likely did.

“I came here because I believe this team has a chance of winning as much as anybody else,” said Dempster. “I’ve always believed that should be your mentality going into any season. Every team’s going to win 50 games. Every team’s going to lose 50 games. It’s what you do with the other 62 that matters.”

Twitter: jan_doh