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Red Sox hope rookie Kyle Weiland can dash Rays’ hopes

09.14.11 at 6:55 pm ET
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Red Sox rookie Kyle Weiland will start on Thursday in the opener of a four-game series with Tampa Bay that could decide the wild card race. (AP)

It would have been almost impossible to predict the turn of events.

Entering the season, the idea that the Red Sox would ask a pitcher with all of three major league starts to take the ball in a game dripping with playoff implications would have seemed incredibly far-fetched. Yet that is precisely the circumstance in which the Sox find themselves heading into Thursday’s contest against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Kyle Weiland — who just over a week ago was still pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket, where he’d spent almost all of 2011 — will take the ball for the second time in six days against a Rays team that is suddenly within 3 1/2 games (pending the outcome of Tampa Bay’s contest against the Orioles on Wednesday) of the Sox in the wild card. That Weiland is being entrusted with such an assignment is both a reflection on the regard in which he’s held by the organization, as well as the rapid deterioration of the rest of the rotation.

Josh Beckett will return on Friday after suffering his sprained ankle on Sept. 5. Erik Bedard — whom the Sox ideally would want to use in this series against their chief competitors for a postseason slot — remains sidelined by a minor lat strain, with no date designated for his return. And Andrew Miller has been erratic to the point that the Sox feel that Weiland (whose right-handedness was also a factor given that Tampa Bay has an offense that has enjoyed greater success against lefties this year) is the right choice for a game with major playoff implications.

“The other day down in Tampa,” said Sox manager Terry Francona, referencing a damage-minimizing effort in which Weiland went four innings and allowed three runs, “that was pretty tough circumstances for him, away against them and he got through his first inning. We just think he can rise to the occasion and give us a chance to win. I don’t doubt [Miller] would do the same thing.”

Yet it is Weiland (0-1, 6.75 ERA) who will get the ball, making his fourth big league start. The rookie said that he welcomes the challenge.

“This is what everybody wants to be a part of in baseball. I want to go to the playoffs and be a part of it,” said Weiland, who turned 25 on Monday. “The team has definitely got a really good shot at making the playoffs, and a really good shot at going all the way. to be a part of it is really something special. Getting an opportunity to help out with my few starts that I’ve gotten is just tremendous.”

The right-hander expects that he will benefit from having a second straight start against the same team, just as was the case in his first two starts. In July, Weiland made his big league debut against the Orioles on July 10, permitting six runs in four innings on a day when he struggled to control his emotions. But he came back nine days later with far better results against Baltimore, allowing three runs in six innings.

Weiland hopes to use both that experience as well as his outing against the Rays last weekend to his benefit.

“It’s nice to get a chance to watch some video of the first game. I definitely took advantage of that. Going into the game, you obviously trust your catcher because they’ve faced [the team] all year,” said Weiland. “But seeing them one time through, that’s definitely going to help me next time to figure out how to start guys off and have a little more confidence going into it that way.”

Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who caught Weiland’s outing against the Rays last Saturday, said that the 6-foot-4 pitcher showed the stuff to succeed in challenging circumstances. He believes that Weiland, who threw 46 of 82 pitches (56 percent) for strikes in his first outing against Tampa Bay, simply needs to attack his opponents and trust his stuff to shut them down.

“Not one pitch stays straight, so I think we’re going to attack the zone a little bit more tomorrow, try to get them to swing a little bit instead of going 2-0, 3-0 on guys and walking,” said Saltalamacchia. “He’s got good enough stuff where we don’t have to hit the corners. He can just go after guys.”

The 2008 third-round draftee positioned himself for this opportunity over a season in which he went 8-10 with a 3.58 ERA, 126 strikeouts and 55 walks in 128 1/3 innings in Triple-A. The development of his pitching arsenal to include a cutter with which to attack left-handers and the ability to use the rest of his pitches (fastball, curve, changeup) to both sides of the plate against both the righties and lefties convinced the Sox that he has the stuff to be a starter in the majors.

Now, he will get that opportunity at an unexpectedly critical stage of the season. It is a lot to put on a young starter’s shoulders, but the challenge is one that could be a positive one in Weiland’s career.

“It’s a tough situation for anybody to come into. [But] I think it’s a good thing. I think the younger you are, coming up in the big leagues in this situation, the better you’ll be down the road,” said Saltalamacchia. “I think it’s a little confidence booster for that guy as well.”

Indeed, Weiland suggests that the chance to pitch amidst the pressure of the playoff race serves to validate what he’s done to this point. That being the case, he suggests that he will not feel any undue weight as he enters his outing against Rays rookie Jeremy Hellickson.

“[The start] means a lot. It’s a long season with a lot of hard work put in. It’s going out there, trusting your stuff and knowing that you’ve worked hard enough to have success. It’s not like I took any days off and slacked,” said Weiland. “You can sleep good at night knowing you did everything you could. Now it’s going out there, pitching your game and not putting too much pressure on yourself.

“Going into this start, you’ve got to keep your mind about you, remember what got you there,” he added. “When it comes to that day, it’s the same game I’ve been playing for my whole life, so I’ve just got to remember that.”

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