BOSTON -- Red Sox starter Felix Doubront described his 28th start of the season on Sunday as "one of the best" he's had all season.
The left-hander should be proud of his accomplishment against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. He had to settle for a no-decision, but he helped the Red Sox to a 2-1 victory. Doubront worked seven strong innings and allowed only one run on four hits.
With the way he pitched, it's almost stunning that the organization had discussions about whether to shut him down only a few weeks ago. The idea made sense at the time because Doubront is in his first full season as a starter at the major league level, and he had thrown the most innings of his professional career.
At the time, he had not won in eight consecutive starts. The decision was made that as long as he was healthy, Doubront would continue to pitch in 2012.
"I'm learning a lot," Doubront said after Sunday's game. "This is pretty much the year that I'm looking at as a challenge and I'm learning from. Next year, when I have these challenges again, it'll be easy for me."
On Sunday, Doubront was the most dominant he's been all season. He was throwing all of his pitches with conviction and working at an efficient pace.
"I thought he was outstanding today," Red Sox pitching coach Randy Niemann said.
Doubront could be a major contributor for the rotation for a long time and his fellow starters realize that.
"Everybody's always said he's going to be good, he's going to be special," Clay Buchholz said. "When you're throwing 95 from the left side with movement, along with all the other pitches he throws, whenever he's on, his stuff is pretty close to unhittable. As far as next year, you can look at him, like he did today, and know he's going to be good."
Doubront has been working closely with Niemann and the two have tweaked a few things in the pitcher's setup and delivery since the middle of August. As Niemann explained, Doubront has moved on the mound a little bit in order to take some of the pressure off his shoulder. Plus, the club shut him down for nearly three weeks in August with what was deemed a right knee contusion in order to give him some time off.
"We've made sure with each start he feels good, and he's feeling good," Niemann said. "That was evident today with the velocity (upwards of 96 mph) he had and the command he had."
So far the adjustments have worked. Despite a 1-1 record in his last three starts, the southpaw has pitched well. He suffered a loss against the New York Yankees on Sept. 13 but worked 6 1/3 innings and allowed only two runs on four hits with five walks and five strikeouts.
Doubront collected his 11th win of the season on Sept. 18 against the Tampa Bay Rays, working six innings in which he allowed three runs on one hit with five walks and five strikeouts. On Sunday he pitched masterfully.
"I'm pitching with a lot of confidence now," he said. "In those three games I've tried to build my confidence back and that's working."
"He was filthy," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "His last three starts have been better than solid. He's really bearing down, keeping the ball down in the zone and really working all of his pitches. Today was awesome. He hit his spots and went after the hitters.
"Fortunately, we had some shadows to deal with and that helped out, but the past two starts he didn't have shadows and he did well. He's just continuing that."
Doubront's 11 strikeouts on Sunday were a career high. He's posted nine strikeouts in a game twice this season. He's only the second Red Sox pitcher to record 10 or more strikeouts this season (Jon Lester posted 12 on Aug. 12 at Cleveland).
In fact, Doubront, 24, has 157 strikeouts this season, which is the most by Red Sox left-handed pitcher age 24 or younger since Babe Ruth tallied 170 in 1916. The last right-hander 24 or younger to strike out that many was Roger Clemens (256) in 1987.
Saltalamacchia said he's definitely seen a more confident Doubront the last three starts, especially given the workload the left-hander has faced this season.
"I would hope with his stuff he is confident," Saltalamacchia said. "I know if I had that stuff I'd be pretty confident. That's important for all the guys right now because we're not in contention for anything, so we need to finish the season strong, we need to feel good about what we're doing and where we're going, and Felix is going to be a big part of our staff next year."
The mental aspect of the game is something Doubront admits he wants to work on moving forward.
"I have great stuff, but sometimes I lose focus. I think these last three outings I came back strong," Doubront said.
The adversity he's faced is normal for most young starters in the big leagues. In mid-August, around the 130-inning mark, Doubront began to tire. Fortunately, he was healthy. There was some thought of shutting him down for the season in order to avoid a possible injury, but Doubront wanted to keep pitching despite a string of eight starts without a victory.
He stuck to his normal routine and proved he could continue to pitch this season.
"Going forward that's going to be very valuable for him," Niemann said. "Especially in a situation where you get to the playoffs."
Doubront has thrown 154 innings in 2012. His previous high was 129 1/3 innings in Class A ball in 2008.
"I'm tired," he said. "But my mind is pretty strong. When I'm out there, I don't feel nothing, just pitch, pitch, pitch and get an out and have a good game."
He'll need to get used to this situation because he'll be trying to reach 200 innings as long as he's a starter in the big leagues.
"Along with going through that period where you have to grind a little bit, I think some of his confidence got shook a little bit," Niemann said. "He's mentally gone through that and now he's back to where he needs to be because he's always been confident. I think it's helped him and once he got over it, he started realizing, 'You know what? I am pretty good.' I keep telling him how good he is, so hopefully he realizes it. I think he does. I think he can be an elite pitcher."
His teammates agree.
"He's still young. He's got a lot of game left, a lot of baseball left and he's finishing strong," Saltalamacchia said.
Doubront will make one more start in the 2012 season and no matter the outcome, he can consider this year a success. Still, he wants to finish strong.
"It's very important," he said. "That's what I'm working for. I have to finish strong and get ready for next year."