BOSTON -- It is probably prudent to allow more time to pass before giving the all-clear sign, but it appears the Red Sox have figured out how to keep opponents from running wild.
Opponents stole two or more bases in 11 of Boston’s first 16 games, the nadir coming when the Texas Rangers stole 14 bases in three games, including the horrifying/ludicrous night in which they stole 9 bases without a single runner caught.
At that point, only one out of 37 aspiring base-stealers had failed to achieve success, and suddenly a focal point of conversation was whether the Sox could go the entire season with Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek behind the plate.
But in a dozen games since April 23, the Sox have succeeded in catching 8 of 11 base-stealers, and the Red Sox are no longer last in the league in stopping the running game. They’ve given up 39 steals, 15 more than the second-worst team, the Kansas City Royals, but their success rate at stopping runners (9 of 48, 19 percent) now ranks third worst, behind Thursday night’s opponent, the Angels (4 of 26, 15 percent), and the Yankees (4 of 25, 16 percent), who arrive Friday for a three-game set.
It has been a collaborative effort between the Sox pitchers and catchers, which is almost always the case. Pitchers have been more conscious of keeping runners close, and Martinez, especially, is unloading the ball quicker and with greater accuracy.
Five different Sox pitchers have picked off runners in the last dozen games. On April 23, Jon Lester picked off Cesar Izturis of the Orioles and five days later picked off Mike McCoy of the Blue Jays. On April 30, the same night that Martinez threw out Matt Wieters of the Orioles, John Lackey picked off Adam Jones.
Then, on Monday night, Clay Buchholz picked off Torii Hunter of the Angels, and Martinez threw out Maicer Izturis. The Angels did steal a base Tuesday night, when catcher Mike Napoli surprised Lester and stole third.
“I think there are a lot of factors,’’ manager Terry Francona said Thursday when asked what the Sox had done to stem the tide. “If you give up a lot of hits and walks, there are a lot more baserunners. If you’re playing from behind and someone runs into an out, it’s not as glaring for them.
“We got caught in that buzzsaw for awhile. There wasn’t a lot of deterrent. We were down in games with teams that wanted to run. If we did throw somebody out, they tried again. They felt pretty confident.’’
Francona praised Martinez, whose throws had been sailing high, for all the work he has done on his throwing. Between innings, after he has made a throw, Francona said Martinez is inquiring what his time was.
“I’ve been working a lot on my throwing,’’ Martinez said, “and obviously I feel a lot better with it now.’’
But a faint smile crossed his lips when asked if the pitching staff had also become more diligent.
“Definitely the pitchers have been better,’’ he said. “I’m getting the ball out there with the time they give me. It’s all about the pitching staff and they’ve been doing a lot better.’’
Sox catchers are about to face a challenge this weekend in Brett Gardner of the Yankees, who has been successful in 13 of 14 stolen-base attempts and ranks second in the league behind Juan Pierre of the White Sox for most steals. Pierre began the night with 15.