Positive pitching news has been hard to come by for the Boston Red Sox this season. Just five weeks into the regular season, the team already has placed 40 percent of its planned starting rotation David Wells and Curt Schilling on the disabled list.
But on a gloomy Sunday, a ray of hope emerged. Wade Miller, making his first major league appearance since last June, showed signs that he may be a big contributor to the ailing rotation.
His arrival could not have come at a better time. Twice in the last week, the Red Sox have had to plug journeyman Jeremi Gonzalez into the rotation, and on another occasion, swingman John Halama made a start. Wells and Schilling are still weeks away from returning.
The Red Sox have survived behind the trio of Bronson Arroyo, Tim Wakefield and Matt Clement, who have combined to go 10-1 in the first 31 games. But more is needed and Miller showed Sunday that he might be able to provide help. Starting the second game of a day-night doubleheader against the Mariners, Miller allowed two runs on three hits over five innings while striking out six, in a game the Red Sox would go on to lose, 6-4.
Miller didn't figure in the decision, but he is a factor in their future.
Last December, while a handful of other teams were kicking the tires on Miller, researching the frayed labrum that shut him down for the second half of last season with the Astros, the Red Sox were willing to make a deal. This, after all, was a pitcher who won 45 games during 2001-2003. Healthy, he could fill the role of No. 2 starter.
The day after Miller was non-tendered by the Astros, the Red Sox flew him to Boston for a physical examination. By the next day, they had signed him to a low-risk ($1.5 million base) contract for 2005.
Boston approached this year with low expectations. If Miller couldn't pitch in 2005, he was under the team's control for 2006, too, with a low salary on which to base his arbitration case. If he managed to contribute this year, all the better.
That Miller was ready to contribute this early was an unexpected bonus.
The Red Sox brought him along slowly in spring training. It was weeks before Miller even got up on a mound, and his appearances for a time were limited to simulated games and live batting practice.
At the start of the season, Miller embarked on a rehab assignment, working his way up the Red Sox's minor league ladder, beginning in Class A ball. Last week, when the Red Sox were forced to summon Gonzalez for a start, Miller pressed the club to activate him. Instead, he was sent out for one more rehab appearance at Triple-A Pawtucket.
Having come this far, the Red Sox weren't about to get greedy.
The conditions were far from perfect Sunday for a pitcher making his first regular season start in 11 months. The game-time temperature was just 48 degrees and a steady mist fell for much of the game.
Not that any of it made much difference to Miller, who got as high as 95 mph on a first-inning fastball to Adrian Beltre, and regularly threw 92-93. His overhand curveball was sharp, though he had some difficulty commanding it at times. Of his 91 pitches, 58 were thrown for strikes.
"I thought there was a lot to be excited about,'' gushed manager Terry Francona. "He was reaching back and throwing the ball aggressively. His fastball had some pop and he sustained it. His breaking ball had tight spin. He was throwing loose and easy. This was not a fluke. That's how he pitches.''
"He had some life on his fastball and he had a feel for his curveball,'' said catcher Jason Varitek. "He threw the ball real well. Now we have to make sure he maintains his health.''
That may be the tricky part. Miller elected to rest the shoulder problem rather than have it surgically repaired. To date, the results have been impressive.
But for how long?
"As far as I know,'' said one baseball official, "the only guy who's done this [tried to pitch with a frayed labrum] is Pedro Martinez. Usually, this kind of thing requires surgery at some point. Good luck to him, but I'm not sure how long he can avoid [a procedure].''
The Red Sox have made some subtle changes to Miller's delivery, reducing the stress he placed on his shoulder when he threw across his body. But there will always be the nagging realization that his next pitch could land him on the DL for a year or so.
None of that was talked about Sunday in the immediate aftermath of his return. There was too much not too like, and with Schilling and Wells both walking around with boots on their feet, the timing couldn't have been better.
"He'll get stronger and pitch deeper into games,'' said Francona. "It was fun to watch him do that and to know that five days from now he'll get the ball again.''
"This was a good start to get my feet wet for the team,'' said Miller, who acknowledged some pregame jitters. "I felt pretty comfortable. I felt good the whole time. Everything felt good from the get-go. It was good to get that first one out of the way.''
Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.