Miller emerging as a bright spot

BOSTON -- When Detroit Tigers GM David Dombrowski watches his team play the Red Sox this week, he likely will see confirmation that he and assistant GM Al Avila and scouting director David Chadd were right all along: Andrew Miller is a big league pitcher.

The process certainly has taken longer than the Tigers envisioned when they drafted Miller in the first round in 2006 and fast-tracked him to the big leagues the same summer. It has taken seven seasons and three big league organizations, but at long last the 6-foot-7 Miller, thriving as a left-handed setup man for the Red Sox, has proven he belongs.

An electrifying performance Sunday night in Yankee Stadium, in which he retired Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira with runners on the corners in the seventh inning to protect Felix Doubront's lead, then struck out Nick Swisher with a devastating slider before Andruw Jones hit a two-out double in the eighth, reinforced Miller's importance to the Sox bullpen.

"I'm excited and happy to take the ball for any opportunity," Miller said after Boston's 3-2, 10-inning win over the Yankees.

"Honestly, it was a lot of fun. We're all out there to pick each other up. All you want to do is leave those guys [baserunners] out there, and fortunately I was able to do that. Unfortunately I gave up that double to Andruw Jones. I thought I set him up pretty good for a fastball -- I thought wrong and paid for it.

"But fortunately we were able to grind something out at the end, and Ace [Alfredo Aceves] gave an incredible performance. A win at the end of the day is what matters."

What shouldn't have mattered, he said, is TV cameras catching him smiling and laughing in the Sox dugout with teammates Kelly Shoppach and Aaron Cook after being replaced by Aceves, who gave up a game-tying single after Jones' double, the run charged to Miller. ESPN analyst Orel Hershiser made some disapproving comments about the scene, which Miller heard about after the game.

Don't be deceived by appearances, he said.

"I don't know if he'd rather I kick over the water cooler," he said. "I've never been that kind of guy. I mean, I think if you look at my initial reaction when I gave up that hit, I wasn't happy, I wasn't smiling.

"Bobby came out and took the ball from me, it's Ace's game from there on. There's nothing I can control, so those guys [Shoppach and Cook] coming on and keeping it light, making me feel better, that's a good thing. If everybody went to the other side of the bench and I sulked and kicked over the water cooler, that's not positive.

"From my point of view, I'm glad we got guys like that on our team. I hope it's not taken wrong. It's something I think a good team will show, guys picking each other up," he said.

Miller came into camp this season as a contender for the back end of the Sox rotation, but a strained hamstring knocked him out of the competition early, the jobs won by Daniel Bard and Doubront. Bard, Miller's former teammate at the University of North Carolina, struggled and is in Pawtucket trying to win back his former job of setup man.

Doubront, meanwhile, has lived up to all the glowing things said by Valentine, who quickly became an advocate for the Venezuelan lefty to be in the rotation. Doubront held the Yankees to just four hits in 6⅓ innings, striking out eight, and escaped the peril created by five walks by holding the Yankees hitless (0-for-7) with runners in scoring position. All this in his first start in Yankee Stadium against the Yankees, against whom he now has a 2.41 career ERA. His 11 wins also lead the club.

"He's been great all year," Miller said, "then coming in here, he pitched his butt off. He's been there all year for us. It's been fun to watch. He's been improving in front of our eyes and we need that. That's an awesome performance, and I hope he builds on it."

It's equally clear that through Valentine's judicious use of him, Miller also is carving out a niche that has made him increasingly valuable to the Sox. After stranding the two Yankees on Sunday, he has allowed just 3 of 27 inherited runners to score, the second best rate in the American League. The control problems that plagued him earlier in his career are nowhere to be seen; he has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 30-to-7 in 25⅔ innings, and this month has struck out 10 while walking just one in 5⅔ innings.

"I am getting more comfortable, it's becoming more natural," Miller said of his relief role. "I never expected to pitch three days in a row, but so far, so good. I'm learning. It's a blast. Every time I come in, the adrenaline rush gets you through those situations, and honestly right now it's more fun to pitch in those situations and have success. It's a rush.

"As a starter, you're so concerned about the 110 pitches you're throwing, you're looking at the big picture the whole time. As a reliever, I'm just focused on the guy at the plate. Get him out, and if they ask me to get another guy, get him out.

"For me, right now, it's easier to focus on the task at hand, and I think it's working well."

Miller was disinclined to read too much into Boston's weekend wins over the Yankees. "Hopefully, momentum does exist," he said.

But in his mind, there's no question that the Sox can make a run at a playoff spot.

"We know we can compete with teams like this," he said. "We know what we got, what we're capable of. We were the best team in baseball for the majority of the year last year. Baseball can be a crazy game; all kinds of things can happen. But anybody can look at this team and see we have the right pieces, the right players. It's up to us to go do something and prove it. But if you're talking just what's on paper, we have more than enough."