Attention, Red Sox prospect watchers. Jon Lester is doing just fine.
An unsightly 0-3, 8.64 mark at Triple-A Pawtucket after three starts could cause concern among a fan base that's always on the lookout for bad news. But the Red Sox are simply using his first Triple-A experience for its intended purpose: to get Lester ready for the big leagues.
"We're trying to keep Lester's innings down artificially," Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen said. "We're being overcautious with him in April, but he's strong and we'll take the reins off once he gets going."
Lester, a lefthander who is the top pitching prospect in the organization, had his best outing of the season last night in Durham, allowing two runs on two hits and two walks in four innings, striking out six. Because the Red Sox have him on a short leash–65 pitches or four innings–he had to leave the game down 2-1. The Pawsox went on to lose 8-3 to the Bulls, but Lester still took the loss.
"The game slowed down for me a little bit tonight," Lester said. "My first two outings I was still trying to get comfortable and figure out my place on this team. I'm starting to get comfortable on the mound and figure out pitch-to-pitch what I want to do . . . Before it was just get the ball and see how fast I can throw it."
Lester allowed his two runs in the third inning, but his other three innings were dominant, as he allowed only one hit and struck out six. He also made a point to use his curveball more, a key final piece in his development.
"With four innings, you don't really have a chance to use all your pitches. You want to go after guys, you want contact and there's no setting guys up, really," he said. "That fourth inning, I just wanted to use it. I had trouble with it my last outing and said, 'Screw it, I'm going to throw it and see what happens.'
"I'm finally starting to throw it and trust it. That's the biggest thing with any of my stuff is just trusting it, believing that it's going to work."
Pawtucket pitching coach Mike Griffin said Lester has been impressive so far, no matter what his numbers say.
"We're working on him repeating his delivery, using all of his pitches–which he has been–and basically, that's it. We're not rocket scientists here. We're developing," he said. "And our organization has a pretty darn good plan. We're very proud of it. And we've developed a lot of good young pitchers because of that.
"Jon Lester has a great head on his shoulders. He's very smart, very intelligent. If I had to nail down one thing that I've been very impressed with so far, it's that in three starts, he's been able to carry out a gameplan. That's pretty darn impressive for a young kid."
• It took longer than expected, but Rangers right fielder John Mayberry Jr. finally got his first hit in full-season ball. In fact he got two of them: a home run and a double in low Class A Clinton's 5-4 loss against Lansing last night.
The 22-year-old pulled his hamstring right before minor league camp started, then aggravated it rounding first after he hit a double in a big league spring training game. That put him on the shelf for a few weeks, and he didn't make his Midwest League debut until Monday, going 0-for-9 with four strikeouts before last night.
"It's early; he is just trying to get his timing back," farm director Scott Servais said. "We are trying to get him healthy, give him at-bats, get him in a routine, and then make some adjustments."
A first-round pick out of Stanford last year, Mayberry had a habit of tinkering with his stance and going the other way too often as an amateur. The Rangers are trying to get him to stand closer to the plate and use his tremendous raw power by turning on pitches more.
"We did some things with his swing after we drafted him that started to pay dividends in the (short-season Northwest League) last year," Servais said. "Hopefully he'll continue along those lines."
Mayberry is also moving from first base to right field. Considered the best college athlete in the 2005 draft, he should become a solid outfielder because of his athleticism and above-average arm.
• Before the Athletics took three high school righthanders in the first three rounds of the 2005 draft, righthander Ryan Webb was the standard bearer for high school pitchers in the organization–the only high school pitcher the A's selected in the first 10 rounds of the previous three drafts combined.
Oakland was enticed by the potential of the 6-foot-6 Webb when it drafted him in the fourth round in 2004, and he's starting to fulfill that potential. Webb, 20, struck out 11 with no walks in seven innings for high Class A Stockton against Inland Empire yesterday. He allowed six hits and just one unearned run, bringing his season numbers to 1-0, 1.04 with a 17-4 strikeout-walk ratio in 17 innings. He didn't factor in the decision as Inland Empire won 2-1 in 12 innings.
Webb's fastball velocity has improved from 86-88 mph when he joined the organization to the 89-91 range, his slider has gotten much tighter and he does a better job keeping his composure on the mound, A's farm director Keith Lieppman said.
A particularly encouraging sign has been Webb's success against lefthanded hitters, who batted .311 against him last season with 26 strikeouts and 24 walks in 51 innings. This year, Webb has a .286 average against and an 8-2 K-BB versus lefthanders in 35 at-bats. Lieppman points to Webb's changeup as the biggest reason for his success against lefties–and for his improvement in general.
"He's really embraced the changeup," Lieppman said. "That is a pitch that he didn't possess last year–or he did but we had to force him to use it. In fact, we had threatened him a couple of times to not let him start unless he threw the organization policy of 10 to 15 percent (changeups) per outing. We had to help him understand that he had to be able to master three pitches in order to move along the organizational chart.
"So this year in spring training, he really focused on those two things–his fastball command and the use of his changeup–and I really think that has opened up his other pitches, because he's got a really good slider. It's given him a lot more options as far as how he pitches, and I think that's part of the reason he's getting the strikeouts he's getting now."
• Righthander Ubaldo Jimenez is one of the Rockies' top pitching prospects but didn't perform like one last season at Double-A Tulsa, which explains why he's back there to open the 2006 season. Based on his start last night, though, he's rounding back into form.
Jimenez, 22, has battled shoulder injuries over the last two seasons and struggled in his first start this season, allowing six runs in 4 2/3 inings. But he dominated Arkansas batters last night, giving up two hits, two walks and an unearned run in six innings while striking out 11. The Drillers won 11-3 to complete a five-game sweep of the Travelers.
Tulsa also got plenty of offense, with three hits each from Troy Tulowitzki, Christian Colonel and Joe Koshansky. Third baseman Ian Stewart when 2-for-5 to extend his hitting streak to 11 games.
• Justin Upton has been activated at low Class A South Bend and could play as soon as tonight. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft injured his left shoulder swinging a bat during spring training and opened the season on the disabled list. Because he did not sign with Arizona until January, he has yet to play a game professionally. Adding to the anticipation, Upton will make his debut as a center fielder after coming through the amateur ranks as a shortstop.
• Brewers No. 5 prospect Corey Hart can play all three outfield spots, but with Gabe Gross getting all the leftover playing time in Milwaukee, Hart found himself the odd man out. He was optioned to Triple-A Nashville Tuesday, and after just two games there had more at-bats (eight) than he had in two weeks in the majors (three).
"I'd go back and sit on the bench in the majors in a heartbeat," Hart told the (Nashville) Tennessean. "But you feel better about yourself when you're playing, when you're doing something. Everybody wants to go somewhere and play, be a part of it."
Contributing: Matt Eddy, Aaron Fitt, Dan Friedell, Matt Meyers.