The Big Pitcher, Part 4: Down in the 'Demps

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The following is the fourth of five in a series focusing on the Red Sox starting pitchers.

Jan-Christian Sorensen
Contributing Writer

While he’s not nearly where the Nation or Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves might like him at this point in the season, Ryan Dempster showed some promising signs of shaking off a three-game slump this week against the Phillies.

Coming into Tuesday’s game against Philadelphia, Dempster’s stats were grim: a 10.66 ERA and only 12.2 innings pitched over his last three starts, serving up 15 runs on 20 hits and walking 11 during that span. And when Michael Young took the second pitch he saw from Dempster on Tuesday and parked it in the first row of the Monster seats for a 1-0 lead, it looked like it was going to be another short night for the 36-year-old righty.

But Dempster shook it off, settled down, and twirled a half-decent outing, going seven innings, allowing only two runs on six hits and striking out four in a 98-pitch performance. We damn his quality start with faint praise solely because the opposing pitcher, Cliff Lee, was indomitable, tossing 69 of his 95 pitches for strikes during an eight-inning, four-hit, eight-strikeout performance.

“I felt better,” said Dempster after the game. “I threw the ball a little bit better tonight. I just got outpitched by the other guy. Cliff Lee is tough. When you’re going to go out there and match up with him, you can’t make any mistakes. I made a couple tonight and it cost us a couple runs. He did a good job of pitching against us.”

Sox manager John Farrell also saw some positive signs in Dempster’s game against the Phils.

“I thought Ryan was much improved over his three previous starts, much like we saw prior to that three-start stretch where he was down in the strike zone, he had good secondary stuff," said Farrell. He was able to go to good location early in the count with his fastball. Saw a lot of early outs with his split and his slider. It was very encouraging to see, despite the outcome. His seven solid innings of work was needed and good to see him do that.”

Another upside of Dempster’s performance Tuesday was his efficiency, throwing 98 pitches and logging seven innings for only the fourth time in 11 starts this season. During his three-game skid Dempster’s pitch counts were through the roof while his innings pitched were paltry.

A closer look: In a 12-4 loss to Toronto May 12, Dempster went five innings, threw 100 pitches and gave up six runs — all earned — on seven hits, including three home runs. Against Minnesota on May 18 Dempster only lasted four and two-thirds, serving up eight hits, five runs and walking six on 127 pitches. The offence was able to bail him out in the 12-5 win, however, and reward him with a no-decision. And no doubt still reeling and feeling the effects of those 127 pitches, Dempster’s next start against Cleveland on May 23 — a 12-3 loss to the Indians — was similarly troubling: only three innings to toss 85 pitches and give up four runs and four walks.

In his first seven starts, Dempster held opponents to a .188/.272/.357 line while striking out 55 and walking 18. For a spell, he was even chasing a Pedro Martinez strikeout record. Compare that with May, where Dempster is 1-4 in six starts with an ERA of 5.51.

It’s a study in contrasts with Dempster thus far this season. From month to month, game to game and batter to batter. He’s currently tied for second in the majors in walks with 32. His walks per nine innings rate in 2013 (4.60) is up substantially from 2012 (2.71) but so, too, is his strikeout rate per nine innings — 7.96 last year, and 10.20 in 2013.

“I’ve been doing this long enough to know you hit some bumps in the road,” said Dempster. “You hit some stretches where you pitch really great. I tried to make my pitches (Tuesday), and I’m going to get back out there and do this again in five days. I’ll be ready for the Yankees then.”

Let’s just hope the Yankees aren’t ready for him.

If his struggles on the starting side of the ball continue, there might be a solution worth exploring: move Dempster out to the bullpen, where he can diminish his workload and help spell Andrew Bailey if needed. In 2005 Dempster was 33 of 35 in save opportunities for the Cubs and in 2007 he saved 28 of 31 before moving back to the starting rotation the following year.

And while there were rumblings last week that a groin injury might have played a part in his recent troubles on the mound, Dempster bristled at the suggestion. If there is a “groin” of truth in the rumor, however, Dempster can always take a cue from Sam Malone and parlay it into a rap career and a gig doing the late-night Boston sports broadcast:

To date, the Red Sox starting pitching corps is ranked first in the American League in innings pitched (324.2) and second in the AL in wins (23), strikeouts (318) and average against (.237). Sox starters are third in the AL in ERA (3.69) and fourth in hits allowed (289). On the downside, Sox starters are leading the league in walks, issuing 133 free passes.

Twitter: jan_doh