Chen shows Sox what could have been

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As a candidate to rewrite history, it's tough to compete with Royals left-hander Bruce Chen for what might have been.

Instead of pitching 7 2/3 scoreless innings against the Red Sox on Thursday night in Kansas City's 5-1 win in Kauffman Stadium, Chen could have been one of the most improbable heroes in Red Sox history. Terry Francona never would have been fired, the chicken and beer never would have gotten past the clubhouse door, and the Sox would not have missed the playoffs in 2011.

It came this close to happening, Chen said Thursday night after pitching the "they sure look real" Royals to their 16th win in 20 games since the All-Star break. His slow, slower, slowest repertoire of pitches kept the Sox off-balance, with only one Sox baserunner advancing as far as second while he was in the game.

Chen said he had his bags packed, ready to fly to Tampa Bay to pitch for the Sox in what looked like a certain play-in game against the Tampa Bay Rays to break a tie for a wild-card spot.

"At the time I was in Minnesota," he said, "and as of 10 o'clock that morning they [the Royals] said they had all details worked out, it was just a matter of seeing if it was approved [by the commissioner's office] or not. I had all my stuff packed ready to go to Tampa. I had a flight at 4 or 5 that afternoon."

The Sox were desperate for starting pitching at the time. If they ended the regular season in a tie with the Rays, Theo Epstein wanted to import someone for the one-game playoff in the Trop. A guy who had spent six months with another club, and would not be eligible to pitch in the postseason, was tabbed to be entrusted with the biggest game of the year for the Sox.

At 1 o'clock, Chen said, he thought it was a go. By 3, he had been informed that he would be pitching that night for the Royals against the Twins in their season finale. The approval didn't come, as the Rays lodged an objection with the commissioner's office. "I never found out what happened," Chen said.

It all became moot later that night when Jonathan Papelbon coughed up a ninth-inning lead in Baltimore, Carl Crawford failed to catch a line drive he used to snare in his sleep with the Rays, and Tampa Bay staged an incredible comeback against the Yankees.

"That would have been nice," Chen said of the game that never was. "It would have been one of the good stories. But I'm glad I stayed here in K.C."

Chen did make one cameo appearance for the Red Sox, back in 2003. He lasted just five appearances, including two starts, gave up 4 home runs in 12 1/3 innings and hardly looked like a guy who would still be pitching a decade later. Not only pitching, but at age 36, thriving. He won 35 games over the last three years for a sub-.500 Royals team, and since being restored to the rotation after working in long relief, is 5-0 with a 1.14 ERA.

In a career that began with Atlanta in 1998, Chen has pitched for 10 big league teams. The five-plus seasons he has spent with the Royals is his longest stay anywhere, and now he has stuck around long enough to see them display the makings of a winner.

And he's right in the middle of it, even though his fastball could force radar guns into early retirement.

"I have to change speeds on all my pitches," he said. "I have to make my fastball look faster than it is. I can't rely on just throwing my fastball and pretending that it's OK. Eventually, they catch up to that.

"I make sure with my changeup, I throw one 78, 79 then throw another one 73. My fastball is 83, and sometimes 88. My curveball is 77, 78, then 68. I imagine it has to be a little difficult. Hitters say, 'What is he throwing?' Well, a curveball 69 to 78. 'OK, which one is he going to throw?'

"Ultimately, because of all the things I've gone through in my career, I have learned to become the pitcher I've become today. I learned through trial and error. Sometimes I didn't do very well. Eventually, they figure you out. It'll be interesting to see what I have to do to keep this going."

The Red Sox, who put Jon Lester in a 3-0 hole on Thursday when Jonny Gomes slipped and fell on a fly ball, the first of three errors the Sox would make on the night, will try to regain their footing Friday night behind Jake Peavy, imported in 2013 to do what Chen almost had the chance to do two years earlier: Pitch the Sox into the playoffs.