After dazzling in his first two Grapefruit League starts in spring training, Rubby De La Rosa became one of the most talked-about young players in Red Sox Nation. After all, it was his first time pitching in a Red Sox uniform after being sent over from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason to complete the August 2012 megatrade, and he looked dominant while lighting up radar guns with a fastball that grazes triple digits.
However, after those first two outings, the reality set in that he still had work to do in developing as a pitcher and returning to form following Tommy John surgery in August 2011. De La Rosa allowed seven earned runs in his next two Grapefruit League outings over 2 2/3 innings, and was optioned back to minor league camp soon thereafter.
He headed north with the Pawtucket Red Sox to begin the season, and the same problems he experienced late in major league camp seemed to carry over early on for him there. In his first three starts with the team, De La Rosa posted an ERA of 13.50 over 6 2/3 innings to go along with seven strikeouts versus six walks.
His fourth start of the season was a turning point, though, and since then he has not allowed an earned run in 18 innings, while striking out 22 and walking eight.
"I think he got beat up a couple outings, and I think that kind of humbled him a little bit," Pawtucket manager Gary DiSarcina said. "He realized -- talking to [pitching coach] Rich [Sauveur] too, Rich has been on him on a daily basis about pitching -- I just think his demeanor has changed over the last [five] outings."
Since he is still working back from Tommy John surgery and has maxed out at 110 1/3 innings pitched in a past season, the organization has taken a cautious approach and kept him on a strict pitch count so far this season. In his first six starts of the season he was allowed to throw around 50-55 pitches, but in his past two that limit has been upped to 70-75 per game. The manager thought the expanded workload may be relieving some pressure on the 24-year-old right-hander.
"He kind of sees the light at the end of the tunnel as far as cutting him loose a little more with each positive outing he has," DiSarcina said. "He gets to go out there a little bit longer. He wants to get a win. All these guys want to get wins, and when you're on a pitch count and limit, it's tough to feel the motivation to go out there and go for the win. We're all competitors."
Sauveur had a slightly different explanation for his turnaround, however.
"To be honest with you, I think a talk with myself and I think talking with Pedro Martinez has helped him a lot," his pitching coach said. "He needed to focus [on] what his job was out there -- not worry about the pitch count, not worry about innings, just worry about what his goal is. And every day his goal is to pitch scoreless innings, and he's been doing that, he's been doing a great job [recently]."
Back in De La Rosa's home country of the Dominican Republic, his grandmother was Martinez's nanny, so they share a natural connection. He said they have a strong relationship that has helped him a lot already this season.
"He's been telling me how to pitch -- how to use my pitches, and how to use two different pitch speeds," De La Rosa said of Martinez. "That's what he's been teaching me, and to just keep working hard."
Becoming more of a pitcher than a thrower has been an emphasis from the coaching staff as well.
"I think over the past three or four outings, he's really learned to pitch a little bit more -- use his secondary stuff, locate his fastball -- all the things we preach about," DiSarcina said. "I think when you go out there a couple times and you do it and you see the positive results, you kind of buy into it a little more. Like I said, Rich has done a great job with him, banging on him about pitching and not throwing."
Pitching with more aggression has also been a major difference for De La Rosa, according to the pitching coach.
"I saw a very aggressive take on the game; I've seen that the last four outings," Sauveur said following De La Rosa's May 16 start. "I think his first few outings, I don't want to say going through the motions, but I just didn't see the aggressive attack on the hitters."
The manager agreed, saying, "His demeanor and his body language each time has improved."
"I think everybody needs to be aggressive when they pitch," Sauveur continued. "Every hitter is out there to take dinner off your table, and vice versa, you're out there to take dinner off their table."
From De La Rosa's perspective, he has been doing just that.
"I feel like I've been attacking the strike zone and working quickly [recently], that's why I've been better," he said.
It hasn't all been perfect for him, though. In his most recent start on May 16, he threw only one more strike than ball, and walked four. Still, he was able to limit damage after loading the bases in the first inning, allowing just one unearned run in four innings of work. He also encountered trouble in his final inning of work, but in earlier starts he may have come unraveled instead of bearing down.
"He's been [battling out of jams] lately," DiSarcina said. "Earlier in the season he was not doing it, he sort of would implode on the mound and wouldn't be able to get through it.
"I thought he got us the four innings, he fought through some early struggles with fastball command. The ball was coming out of his hand hot, he had a nice tight slider, and a plus changeup. So his stuff was all there; it was exciting to see him go out there and deal it."
The fastball showed a fairly wide variation in velocity in the outing. It was most often at 93-95 mph on the McCoy Stadium radar gun, but touched 98 mph once and got as low as 90 mph. However, DiSarcina explained that this is not necessarily caused by inconsistency, but rather ties into the pitching-more-than-throwing progress he talked about earlier.
"Every now and then he'll sink it; sometimes his ball cuts, sometimes it sinks," the former major league infielder said. "When you're throwing that firm -- his release point is not completely over the top, he's a little to the side -- [you want to] take some off the sinker when you're looking for a ground ball, something like that. Like we talked about pitching, you don't always have to throw 95 every pitch; variation helps."
It hasn't always been pretty for De La Rosa, but his streak of 18 straight innings without allowing an earned run speaks for itself.
"I'm not going to say he's had easy innings these last [five] outings, because there's been some times when he's walked someone, or last outing he walked two in the first inning," Sauveur said. "But the thing is he's making quality pitches in key situations, and that's the sign of a good pitcher."
Kevin Pereira of SoxProspects.com contributed to this story.