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New weapon for Michael Bowden?

02.13.11 at 10:48 am ET
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FORT MYERS, Fla. — It was a winter filled with novelty for Red Sox pitcher Michael Bowden. He got married early in the offseason, spent some time at home in his native Illinois and then, for the first time in his career, played winter ball.

Some pitchers might view the sudden change of gears from his honeymoon to winter ball to be jarring. But Bowden embraced his time in Venezuela.

“The atmosphere there, the competitiveness, the experience of the games, the energy the fans bring — just to see a different country and how they respect the game and play the game, it was just awesome,” Bowden said upon reporting to spring training on Sunday. “I really enjoyed it.”

The 24-year-old viewed his time pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League as an opportunity to gain greater familiarity with life out of the bullpen. Since the Sox selected him in the sandwich round of the 2005 draft, he had spent each of his first five spring trainings getting stretched out as a starter.

This year, he expects to be preparing strictly as a reliever in Sox camp. He made 14 relief appearances in the majors with the Sox, ending the 2010 season with a 4.70 ERA while having struck out 13 and walked just four in his 15 1/3 innings. While his willingness to attack the strike zone was an asset out of the bullpen, the results were uneven — though he did get swings and misses and strikeouts, opponents had a .323 average, .364 OBP, .548 slugging mark and .912 OPS against him. His time in Venezuela helped to acclimate him to a role in which he started working full time in the middle of the 2010 season.

“Down there, I pitched in the eighth innings of some big games,” said Bowden. “They use pitchers a little bit differently there. I had to be ready for a lot of different roles. I experienced quite a bit. I only threw nine innings, but I threw quite a few outings. I’€™d go in there for a hitter or two hitters or an out. I experienced a lot of different roles and had to get ready and amped up for different situations.”

Bowden allowed three earned runs in nine innings in Venezuela, though he allowed 11 hits and seven walks (against six strikeouts) in his 10 appearances there. Still, he viewed the time as extremely productive, since it allowed him to experiment with a pitch that could be important to him going forward.

Last year, Bowden shelved his curveball completely, not throwing the pitch once while using the slider as his lone breaking ball. In Venezuela, he worked on developing a cutter — a pitch he had never thrown before.

The cutter could be an important pitch for the right-hander. In 23 career big league games, lefties have a .368 average and .422 OBP against him (compared to marks of .289 and .325 by righties). Bowden has always been able to hide the balls from right-handers, helping to explain how he got swings and misses on 13.4 percent of his pitches against hitters from that side of the plate. He had swings and misses on just 5.3 percent of his pitches against southpaws, however. That suggests a need to develop better options against lefties, explaining his work with the cutter this offseason.

He threw the cutter more than he threw the fastball in winter ball, messing with different grips in order to try to gain a sense of comfort with the pitch.

“Trying to get outs while experimenting. Doing that in that environment was a good experience,” said Bowden. “It was effective down there, when it was consistent. It’€™s not going to come overnight, but with some work, it’€™s definitely going to be a pitch I can use.”

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