Foulke takes a big step in comeback

Foulke takes a big step in comeback

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Pitching in his first game this spring -- and first game since September -- in a Triple-A contest against the Orioles' Ottawa Lynx, Red Sox closer Keith Foulke struck out the side on 13 pitches, 10 for strikes, in one inning on Friday afternoon at City of Palms Park.

"It makes me feel better," Foulke said of his performance, in which he got the win. "I made some pretty good pitches in my live [batting practice] sessions and in the bullpens. But until you get in there in a game situation, and until I actually get in there [on Saturday] and next week against the big-league clubs, we still have some stuff to prove. But today was definitely a step in the right direction.

"[It] kind of settles me a little bit," he added. "No matter the strikeouts or if they're ground balls [or] fly balls, I felt I made some good pitches for my first time out. And as a pitcher, that's all you want to do. You want to make good pitches and hope good things happen."

Foulke underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees last year, and has recently received three injections of the joint lubricant Synvisc in both knees. Calling his knees a "non-factor," he said now it's all about mechanics.

"I've already been through a couple different deliveries this spring," he said. "Now, it's just trying to find out what's going to work for me."

Told that the velocity on his fastball registered 85-86 mph, he said: "Oh, well, I probably got a little more in the tank. It's one of those things, my first game-type action. I'm still thinking about a lot of mechanics. I could probably definitely throttle it up a little bit more, and that'll come as we just start getting in a groove a little bit."

Curt Schilling started ahead of Foulke on Friday, pitching seven innings, allowing five runs on eight hits, while striking out 10. He did not walk a batter, but hit one batter, Lynx center fielder Tony Alvarez, leading off the sixth inning.

"He was phenomenal," Schilling said of Foulke's outing. "That's as good as I've seen him look since October of 2004. That's exciting. That's very exciting to see that."

For catcher Jason Varitek, who stayed behind while the Sox played the Orioles in Fort Lauderdale, it didn't matter that Foulke faced Minor Leaguers rather than Major League hitters.

"It was a very good first outing," Varitek said. "He threw some very good quality pitches, and quality pitches are going to get most hitters out. He threw some great changeups, some good located fastballs, nice cutter, and threw a split. So he threw a bunch of different pitches. It was nice; he looked pretty comfortable for a first outing.

"He had some rough times last year," Varitek added. "Is he probably in his tip-top precision? He threw the ball well. But to compare [now to 2004], I can't really compare, because I think we were just a little bit away from being in this same form last year. We had little things happen here and there. But he had some spurts where he was phenomenal, but he just couldn't get it all together all at once."

The lowlight of 2005 for Foulke arguably was the fireworks he created on the Fourth of July. With one out and a 5-4 lead in the ninth inning against the Rangers in Texas, Foulke gave up the game-winning run on Kevin Mench's first-pitch RBI single to left with the bases loaded.

"Oh, I remember very vividly," he said of that steamy night in Texas. "Was it Kevin Mench or was it the three guys in front of him that got me in trouble? Whatever. Like I told you guys before, last year was last year. If we never mention it again, that would be fine with me. What I learned about last year is that I can put last year behind me. It's done. It's over. It's not going to have any effect on this year. I'm smart enough and have been around long enough to know it's not going to do me any good to worry about that."

Last season, in addition to his knee troubles, Foulke was also dealing with some personal issues. He said he's learned a lot about himself in the last two seasons, from 2004 -- when he was 5-3 with an ERA of 2.17 and 32 saves in the regular season, and 1-0 (0.64 ERA) and three saves in the postseason, helping the Sox to the World Series for the first time since 1918 -- to an injury-plagued 2005, when he went 5-5 with a 5.91 ERA and 15 saves in 43 games.

"It's one of those deals where you learn a lot from yourself after the '04 season," he said. "I learned a lot about myself after the '05 season. It's one of those things where you see the highs and lows. One season I was to the top, and the very next season, I was public enemy No. 1. But I learned about myself. It's one of those deals where I'm going to fight. I fought all winter to get back. I'll continue to fight for the rest of my career. I want to kick this game out of my life instead of the other way around."

Still, Foulke doesn't believe he's any mentally stronger now than he was before his difficult 2005 season.

"I've always been very mentally strong," he said. "That's one thing that's helped me get by going on nine years now with mediocre stuff, being able to go out there and compete and think under pressure and make your pitches.

"I'll never be equipped to handle failure. I'll come in kicking, screaming, throwing stuff, cussing, breaking stuff. I don't handle failure well at all. The day you handle failure too well, [is] the day you're sitting on the couch."

Foulke, who is scheduled to pitch in a big-league game on Saturday and then several times next week before the start of the season, was asked if he feels that he's cramming to get ready for the season.

"Let's call it a controlled cram," he said. "When I start sweating or if I'm nervous about having not very much time, that's when you guys can be nervous. But I'm very confident. That last week, say, I'll probably throw three times next week, and I think after that I'll be just fine."

Red Sox manager Terry Francona confirmed on Thursday, before Foulke had pitched in a game, that the closer's job belonged to Foulke.

"That's the first I heard of it, but you guys know me," the closer said. "I don't need him to come to tell me that, 'You're the closer, Keith, and go get 'em,.' I don't give a [care] if I pitch in the fifth inning or the ninth inning. I'm still going to go out there and do my job."

And if he struggles early in the season in that job, will he be looking over his shoulder?

"I don't want people to think the wrong thing but ... I have nothing to look over my shoulder about. When this game's finished with me or I'm finished with this game, I'm going to walk away from it, but I never look over my shoulder. If there's someone out there who can do the job better than me, good for the team, go ahead. But I'm not going to put that pressure on myself worrying about someone else taking my job. I just have better things to worry about than that."

Maureen Mullen is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.