ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays were rallying.
Down the third-base line, a reliever was warming.
And in the middle of it all, Felix Doubront looked lost.
Nine straight balls sailed out of his left hand during the third inning of Wednesday’s game at Tropicana Field.
Some sailed high. Some ran low.
None ventured anywhere near the strike zone.
And for the better part of one nightmarish inning, Doubront looked the part of a guy who hadn’t won a game since the middle of July.
On this night, however, he was able to prevent things from spiraling out of control, and when the Boston closed out a less-than-tidy 7-5 win over the freefalling Rays, Doubront finally had his 11th win of the season.
Most importantly, however, may be the lesson that came with it.
Make no mistake, that third inning was ugly. Doubront was all over the place, triggering the madness by walking Sean Rodriguez, Tampa Bay’s No. 9 hitter who began the night hitting .215 and is only a handful of weeks removed from a stint at Triple-A Durham.
But that was the extent of it. Doubront got Jeff Keppinger to ground into a force out and didn’t allow another hit the rest of the night, throwing six innings before handing things over to the bullpen.
Pretty? Not at all. Doubront walked five and threw just 56 of 101 pitches for strikes.
But that eight-start winless streak is a thing of the past.
“There were a couple calls that he got upset with, and there were walks, and three runs later, he was on the verge of coming out of the game,” said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, who got reliever Clayton Mortensen up during the third inning. “He busted through that door again and he got his 11th win, and I’m really happy for him. He’s been trying for that for a long time.”
Doubrount hadn’t won since he beat the Chicago White Sox on July 18, a winless streak not seen in Boston since Wade Miller’s eight-start run in 2005.
But as much as Doubront needed Wednesday night, the Red Sox need Doubront more. While it’s impossible to pin this disastrous season on any one facet of the game, the starting pitching has been a mess.
John Lackey missed the whole year recovering from Tommy John surgery. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett were chronic disappointments. Daniel Bard’s electric stuff didn’t translate over from the bullpen to the rotation. Andrew Miller’s run toward a spot in the rotation was sidelined by an injury-plagued spring.
The 24-year-old Doubront, who had made three big-league starts entering 2012, has been the antidote. The Red Sox look at him and see hope.
Early on, he supplied a lot of it. Recently, he’s struggled.
On Wednesday, he may have turned a corner.
“I’m getting back my confidence,” Doubront said. “Today, it was one tough inning, and I handled that.”
It wound up being a milestone of sorts for Doubront -- the fewest hits he has allowed in any of his starts. It also marked his 13th quality start, second on the team to Lester (16). The Red Sox are 16-11 in Doubront's outings.
Not bad for a guy who hadn’t won since two weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline.
“It feels like a long time,” Doubront said. “I just want to finish strong.”
Few positions in sports are more cerebral than starting pitcher. The mound can be a lonely, dreadful place, especially for a 24-year-old consistently missing the strike zone and watching one hitter after another lay off his curveball.
But it’s a part of the game Doubront has become accustomed to, and one that could have, but didn’t, eat him up Wednesday.
“The mental part ... now I’m pretty much strong,” he said. “In the past, I was a little bit lost.”
Earlier in the season, Doubront may have caved. Maybe his night would have come to a premature end. Maybe he would have provided the spark the Tampa Bay Rays are so desperately looking for.
On Wednesday, Doubront fought through his struggles. He beat the Rays, and most importantly, didn’t beat himself.
“That was pretty good for me,” Doubront said of his third-inning escape. “I wasn’t thinking about it. I was just pitching.”