This past Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of Michael Bowden relocating from the rotation to the bullpen. Rest assured cake was not served in the PawSox clubhouse to commemorate the occasion.
As it stands, Bowden received his gift a few weeks back when he was bestowed the closing responsibilities by Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler. It’s the type of move that tends to slip under the radar; you won’t find it listed under transactions or the pregame notes. The only tangible proof that Bowden is slamming the door shut in the ninth inning is explained by the following: three of his team-leading eight saves have come in his latest five appearances.
The Red Sox are no fools when it comes to mapping out a detailed program for each player inhabiting their farm system. When Bowden underwent his conversion last summer, he began by pitching in a myriad of roles, be it starting an inning or entering the fray with runners on base. He would work against a handful of batters or be stretched out to know the feeling of being a two-inning max guy. Bowden’s familiarity grew during the Venezuelan Winter League and continued the first few months of this season. Each outing brought with it new challenges, the kind that would enable him to get a firmer grasp of working out of the ‘pen.
One final test remained: closing games. As if on cue, Bowden was given the nod upon the Red Sox optioning him back to the minors on June 24. The guessing game as far as when he would be pressed into service no longer applied. It would be the ninth inning or bust for someone who 12 short months ago was pitching once every fifth day.
“We don’t necessarily have roles in Triple A, but I do enjoy the opportunity when I do get to close a game,” Bowden was saying recently. “There’s definitely a different mentality that you need to go out there and I have fun with it, but you have to be aggressive. You’re in a one-run or a tie game so you’re doing everything you can to keep your team in the ballgame or win it.”
Bowden says he’s tailor made to close out games given that it plays to his strength of going right after hitters. (“It suits my personality very well.”) Such an example was on display a week ago last Thursday at McCoy Stadium. Entrusted with a 6-5 lead with three outs to get, Bowden began the ninth inning with a walk. A sacrifice bunt and a groundball to the right side of the infield moved the potential tying run to third base when former PawSox slugger and International League MVP Jeff Bailey made his way to the plate.
Catcher Ryan Lavarnway called for a fastball on the first pitch, which Bailey was tardy on. Instead of mixing things up, Lavarnway implored Bowden to stay with the heater. Strike two. A veteran like Bailey was not going to caught flat-footed a third time, was he? Indeed he was, as Bowden got him to chase at an offering high up in the zone, the radar gun positioned in right field saying the pitch reached 93 mph.
It was one of those “game-with-the-game” confrontations that still had Bowden smiling a few days later, the kind that indicates he’s not at all intimidated by the gig.
“I won the battle; that’s what it comes down to,” he said matter-of-factly. “There’s two outs and your job right there is that out. That’s the game. When there’s two strikes on the last batter and the fans are into the game, you have all the energy in the world that you want to make that great pitch to get him out.”
Asked if putting out the fire with the outcome hanging in the balance represents the last frontier in order for him to get completely acclimated as a relief pitcher, Bowden responded, “It’s definitely broadening my experience. I feel like I’ve seen almost everything starting. Relieving, I’ve pitched in the fourth inning, the ninth inning and the 10th. I’ve pitched in blowouts and close games. I just feel that every situation I’ve been put in has helped me become a better pitcher and be prepared for any situation I’m put in.”
Bowden has made 10 appearances with the PawSox since June 1, eight of which have seen him take the mound in the ninth. The two exceptions came June 26 when he worked both the eighth and the ninth and this past Wednesday when the Illinois native pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings of the second game of the doubleheader against Rochester.
Closing games in the minors may agree with Bowden, yet the chance of him performing in a similar capacity in the big leagues appears remote. His ERA is a somewhere-in-the-middle 3.38, though this season marks the first time he’s averaging better than a strikeout per inning since 2006 (43 in 34 2/3 innings heading into action Thursday).
At the next level Bowden is viewed as a link between the starters and the setup crew. Warwick native Dan Wheeler and Matt Albers possess the inside track at said role at the moment for the Red Sox, but given the shaky status of Boston’s starting rotation, it’s conceivable that Alfredo Aceves could be pressed into full-time starting duty. That in turn would leave Boston one long man short in the bullpen.
Bowden may not own the experience that just-promoted Scott Atchison does or throws lefthanded like fellow converted starter Tommy Hottovy. What he has going for him is that he can be plugged into any situation and nothing phases him. He may not finish out games with Boston, but thanks to the burgeoning experience he’s gained in Pawtucket, Bowden can go in with the mindset of turning the sixth or seventh inning of a MLB game into his own personal ninth inning.