BALTIMORE — If the Boston Red Sox were going to avenge the high slide by Baltimore Orioles star Manny Machado that jarred Dustin Pedroia‘s left knee and ankle and made him unavailable to play Saturday night, Steven Wright wasn’t the pitcher to do it. Not with his fluttering knuckleball and a fastball that could barely scratch a pane of glass, much less bruise Machado.
Besides, Wright has his own problems.
Coincidence or not — and to hear Wright talk, it is hardly a coincidence — he hasn’t been the same pitcher since last Aug. 7 at Dodger Stadium. That was the day when his out-of-nowhere All-Star season was interrupted by, of all things, a baserunning mishap. Wright entered a one-run game in the sixth inning, dove back into second base on a pickoff attempt and injured his right shoulder, the equivalent of midnight striking for Cinderella.
Wright made only two more starts, neither of which was good, before being effectively shut down. He rehabbed his shoulder during the offseason, and although he has made it through spring training and the first few weeks of the season without a setback, he’s still trying to regain the mechanics that make his knuckleball dip, dive, float and spin most effectively.
And judging by his first four starts, including his latest dud in a 4-2 loss to the power-packed Orioles, Wright isn’t close to being, well, right.
Wright looked sharp for three innings Saturday night. Then came the fourth inning and the back-to-back home runs by Orioles rookie Trey Mancini on a juicy fastball and second baseman Jonathan Schoop on a curveball. Four batters later, Adam Jones waited on a knuckleball and ripped an RBI single to cap the four-run inning.
After the Orioles’ fourth consecutive win and the Red Sox’s second straight loss, Wright dissected his outing. Four times in the span of five questions, he made references to last year or used the phrase “before I got hurt,” clearly signaling a line of demarcation. At the time Wright got injured last season, he had a 3.01 ERA in 22 starts and gave up eight home runs in 146 2/3 innings. Since then, his ERA is 8.46 and he has allowed 11 homers in 27 2/3 innings.
“I just don’t feel like [the knuckleballs] have the violence that they used to have last year,” Wright said. “It’s one of those things. It’s a grind. It’s a long season. I can’t get too down about one start, but obviously, I can’t make a habit of it.”
Wright insists his shoulder is “back to 100 percent.” His mechanics, though, are a different story. And considering how important it is for a knuckleballer to have the perfect feel for his signature pitch, the smallest mechanical flaw can create an enormous problem.
“It’s just a matter of getting everything back, the muscle memory back, and getting back to where I was before the injury,” Wright said. “It’s more release point. I’m getting a little outside myself. It’s something everybody deals with. It’s just a matter of making quicker adjustments, and I haven’t been able to do that. I’m trying to get back to who I was before the injury.”
If lefty David Price wasn’t injured with no return in sight from his elbow problem and the Red Sox’s other starters weren’t going through their own issues, Wright’s problems would be easier for the team to handle. But save for Chris Sale, who has been otherworldly in his first four Red Sox starts, the rotation has been shaky.
Left-hander Drew Pomeranz has not yet seen the seventh inning in a start this season. Neither has fellow lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, who returns to the mound Sunday after a brief paternity leave. Even reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello has pitched well only twice in his four starts. As a group, the rotation has averaged a 4.59 ERA and has logged only 102 innings in 18 games, an average of 5 2/3 innings.
Those numbers figure to improve, even if Price isn’t likely to return before at least the beginning of June. But Wright would have to play a big part in any turnaround. If he’s unable to get back to resembling the pitcher he was before his injury last season, Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski might be forced to add starting pitching before the trade deadline, an aisle he hoped to avoid shopping in when he traded for Sale back in December.
“It’s really frustrating because I feel strong, I feel healthy, and this is the first time I’ve ever struggled like this,” Wright said. “It’s definitely depressing going out there and putting such a burden on the bullpen and on the team.”