New arms, familiar challenge for Young

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was July, the Oakland Athletics were in Boston to play the Red Sox and Tony La Russa was in his third day as Athletics manager. It was 1986, and La Russa's choice to pitch that day was a quiet, unassuming pitcher who would make his first start in Fenway Park: Curt Young. As his teammate Mark McGwire would describe him years later, he was quiet but smart. "A very crafty left-hander,'' McGwire said.

Is there any other kind? "When two out of every three pitches you throw is a changeup,'' Young said with a smile the other day, "you're very crafty.''

The Red Sox found that changeup to their liking that day. They scored six runs in the second inning, hitting four doubles in the inning. But Young lasted until the eighth, giving up just an unearned run the rest of the way.

Young would make just one more start at Fenway in his career, in 1990, and that didn't go well, either. Dwight Evans hit a three-run home run in the first, Wade Boggs a two-run homer in the second and Young gave up 11 hits and 10 runs in six innings.

The Red Sox hired Young to replace John Farrell, who returns here Friday night as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. Clearly, the Red Sox are confident that Young will fare better as a pitching coach in Boston than as a pitcher. His record offers compelling evidence that he will.

Young, who was drafted by Oakland in 1981 and spent most of the last three decades with the club as a player, minor league pitching coach and big league pitching coach, marshaled a staff last season that posted a league-leading ERA of 3.56, even though the oldest member of the rotation, Dallas Braden, was 26. Eighteen-game winner Trevor Cahill was 22. So was Brett Anderson. Gio Gonzalez, who struck out a staff-high 171 batters, was 24. Vin Mazzaro, since traded, was 23.

Young also is the pitching coach who, at the start of the century, oversaw the blossoming of Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson in the big leagues, and in between he constructed another terrific rotation that included Rich Harden, Joe Blanton, Dan Haren and Zito.

When Braden, who last season pitched a perfect game, learned that Young had left for Boston after the Athletics offered him only a one-year contract to stay, he bemoaned the loss of "everyone's favorite uncle" and the staff's "guiding star.''

Managers may have to keep an arm's-length distance from players. Not so a pitching coach, whose success often depends on the degree of closeness and trust he develops with a pitching staff.

"They know I've been through some of the same things,'' said the 50-year-old Young, who pitched a dozen seasons in the big leagues, twice winning 13 games for the A's. "That makes it easier to relate. Seeing the success [the Athletics] had as the season went on, that's a really good feeling, knowing that you spend every single day with them. Even if they're not doing side work or pitching in a game, you're together, with something to talk about -- whether it's pitching, the family, the other team, friends, anything like that. You definitely look to have a good relationship with everybody.''

Now Young is in the process of fashioning relationships with another group of pitchers. He came in here thinking he probably would sit back and observe at first but found that it already has been more hands-on than he expected.

"Once you get into it, you get into the routine of what guys like to do, and get personal with what they want to do on a daily basis,'' he said. "The way this group is, there's such an intensity with the things they do every single day you just want to make sure you're there for them, making sure they keep that intensity and still getting to know them on a personal basis.''

Young offered his thoughts on each of the key members of the staff, and an area of concentration this spring:

Jon Lester

"The great intensity he brings to the game is his No. 1 asset. Just kind of thinking back to other lefties I've been around, he's just a physical specimen the way Mulder was. He's almost the same as Mulder in total control of what he does with his ball. There's no way a hitter can ever sit on a pitch or a location with what he can do. Really, he has five pitches, when you start mixing both sides of the plate, what he does with a cutter, the back-door stuff, the changeup he throws to both sides of the plate to both type of hitters, and he just has a great instinct for what to do with the baseball. He definitely gives you that feeling of a No. 1 starter."

Area of concentration this spring: "Being as efficient as you can be with your pitches, to help with the pitch count. One thing Jon wanted to work on was improving his move. It's still a work in progress, but we hope we've helped in that area."

John Lackey

"Just very strong fundamentally in what he does. He kind of knows exactly what he needs to do. We probably haven't dealt with him mechanically or mentally as part of his game at all. He's got that veteran, very confident feeling in whatever he does and definitely knows how to pitch. He's got a great understanding of how to do it."

Area of concentration this spring: "The focus for John is to keep him healthy. I think he's going at it in slow steps and the right rate to be ready when the season starts."

Clay Buchholz

"Seems like a young fresh arm with tremendous arm speed on every pitch he throws. It's a great weapon to have, and he's got it. He's another guy with great instincts about what he's doing. His command with the baseball is very impressive. For a young guy with a live arm, he has great command.

"Arm speed affects everything. The faster you whip your arm, the harder it is for a hitter to get a read, creating that great deception. He's got the same arm speed on every pitch -- fastball, changeup, curveball and cutter. That's hard to read, leaving a hitter with the feeling that any pitch at any time could be coming. He's a little like Gio Gonzalez: great arm, great life and a special pitch in his curveball."

Area of concentration this spring: "Just making sure he stays on his routines and when he stays on his routines, he stays with good fundamentals. He's on a good path. He found a good routine last year and has stuck with it."

Josh Beckett

"You know what? The numbers Josh Beckett has put up are absolutely incredible. He doesn't walk people. He's a true example of a power right-handed pitcher, and what I've seen so far is he's a great example."

Area of concentration this spring: "It's just his health. If he's good and healthy, the way he throws the baseball, he's going to be solid every fifth day. Reason to be concerned about his back? No."

Daisuke Matsuzaka

"When you think of the stature Daisuke has in the game of baseball internationally, it's so impressive you cannot help but be a fan of what he's done. That's the way I felt coming in. You truly get excited watching Daisuke throwing a baseball. I think he sensed the respect from me right away.

"Him feeling good and healthy is No. 1. When his arm feels right, his velocity is going to be there, and when his velocity is there, his game will be there."

Area of concentration this spring: "The overall aggressive approach that is needed to be a starter who can pitch deep into games. After seeing him pitch a couple of starts where maybe he wasn't as aggressive as should he be, trying to make him understand that the only way he is going to pitch deep into games is the pitch-count factor has to be down. He's a guy who wants to be in a game late, and that's the only way he's going to be there.

"He throws his long toss now on the second day and his side on the third day, after doing both on the same day. He said that's the way he used to do it in Japan, splitting it up. Why did he change and do both on the same day? I can't answer that. He's a guy who has told me he never gets sore or achy in his arm. He's got a solid arm."

Jonathan Papelbon

"Closers are always special; there's a special personality to them, and the special stuff they have. Jonathan, not knowing him and just seeing him from the other side, he has that type of attitude. As a team, you have to trust your closer. Just being here a short period of time, you sense everybody trusts him in what he's going to do late in the game."

Area of concentration this spring: "Him having a good fastball. That's going to make his other two pitches work. The fastball really is the focus. His secondary pitches always come off that."

Bobby Jenks

"Bobby has been great to be around. He's a guy who has a starter's repertoire. He has control of four pitches -- changeup, slider, fastball and curve. You can see, even though he is pitching in a one-inning situation, he keeps hitters guessing about what he might throw.

"Knowing Bobby's personality, I don't think he cares whether he pitches the seventh, eighth or ninth. He's going to take the same approach, no matter what. He's very refreshing. He enjoys being at the ballpark."

Daniel Bard

"Daniel Bard probably has the best arm I've seen in a long, long time. I told him a story how [Kurt] Suzuki came into the dugout last year and told me, 'Young, that ball is hot right there.' That tells a story.

"He's got command of great, great pitches -- fastball, slider, changeup. He really looks like he has a lot of ice in his veins. He's in a perfect position right now, and I don't think too many things bother him, which is a great approach for a late-inning pitcher."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.