Delcarmen's travels end well

Delcarmen's travels find fairy-tale ending

BOSTON -- He was called up almost exactly a year ago -- July 26, 2005 -- as a novelty, a feel-good story of sorts. There Manny Delcarmen was, a Boston native, making his office on the pitcher's mound for the Red Sox of all teams. What was this, some sort of Hollywood script?

If that had been the case, Delcarmen would have been up for good, throwing strikes from the start, baffling opposing hitters with his fastball-curve combination.

But this is no fairy tale. This is the story of a man who got knocked around a little bit, went back to the Minor Leagues not once, but four times. This is a blue-collar tale of someone who is now reaping the benefits of not just an electric arm, but hard work.

Fittingly, the 24-year-old Delcarmen grew up with a blue-collar background, raised in Hyde Park, Mass., throwing his scholastic years at West Roxbury High School, which is less than 10 miles away from Fenway.

And even after the dreamy scenario of getting drafted by the Red Sox in 2000, Delcarmen endured the pothole of Tommy John surgery on his elbow smack in the middle of his Minor League years.

All those various roads along the way have led Delcarmen to where he is now -- being counted on to record some of the most important outs of the season for the Red Sox. He went through one red-hot stretch in July where he was unscored on 11 times in 12 appearances. Delcarmen is 1-0 with a 3.66 ERA in 29 appearances.

"I'm extremely proud of him. He's been through a lot," said interim Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper, who also worked with Delcarmen in the Minors. "He's a great kid. With the arm injuries he's had, all the work he's done to get to where he is, to be on the yo-yo express [between the Minors and Majors] and now to finally to be a valuable part of our bullpen and to be a contributing factor in our bullpen, it's very nice to see."

This is not just a case of natural progression.

"It's a byproduct of the hard work that he has done and the perseverance that he had," Nipper said.

Learning curve
When Delcarmen took his first Major League steps last summer, there's was something quite vital missing from his arsenal -- his curveball.

Some pitchers might have been able to work around such a loss. Delcarmen? He's the first to tell you that his bender is his out-pitch. Without it, he couldn't properly use his fastball.

The result of all this was that manager Terry Francona could not, in good judgment, use Delcarmen in pivotal situations, even though certain talk-show callers and hosts were clamoring for the local guy to get a shot.

Where did that curve -- such a good friend all those years -- go?

"Last year, I don't know if I was just trying to overthrow it or if it was a mental thing," Delcarmen said. "This offseason, it was just snapping every day I was throwing it and I went to Spring Training and Tito was like, 'I didn't know that your curveball was like that.' It's my out-pitch and I'm throwing it for strikes -- and burying it in the dirt when I need to."

Delcarmen's curveball is so good right now that earlier this week in Oakland, he made potential Hall of Famer Frank Thomas come out of his shoes and strike out swinging with the game on the line, helping to preserve win No. 13 for staff ace Curt Schilling.

"I've come to expect that from him," said Schilling.

But the winter return of Delcarmen's curve was not the breakthrough he needed to become an indispensable part of Francona's bullpen. There was more to overcome first.

Overcoming bad habits
The success Delcarmen had at the Minor League level last year was bittersweet for the organization's development staff. After Nipper, who worked solely in the Minors last year, returned from another assignment, he got a glimpse of Delcarmen one day and noticed that his mechanics had begun to go all over the map.

With Delcarmen having lights-out success at Triple-A Pawtucket -- which eventually carved his initial ticket to Fenway -- what could Nipper or any of the other coaches do?

"He had changed his [hand position] last year," said Francona. "I don't think Nip was real pleased with it, but the results were so good. And I understand it, he said, 'I need to stay away from this kid.' We talked about this a lot."

But the tinkering became easier to do this Spring Training when Delcarmen's pitch location was suddenly as faulty as his mechanics.

"When he came to Spring Training, it wasn't working," Francona said. "It was ball one through ball eight and it was the same pitch -- high fastball. Manny wasn't able to catch up and it was killing Nip. It was kind of [irking] me. I didn't understand it, this kid wasn't throwing strikes. It wasn't working."

So the Red Sox, in breaking the news to Delcarmen that he wouldn't be breaking camp with the team, gave him a program to follow.

"It's just breaking my hands down instead of dragging them back," Delcarmen said. "It allows me to throw downhill and use more of my lower half instead of my upper half and not fly open. I'm just happy they caught it real early and made the adjustment, because now I'm throwing strikes."

And that new adjustment would lead to the key to Delcarmen's success.

Strike one
Those two words are ingrained in Delcarmen's brain. They are the words he thinks of every time he warms up in the bullpen or faces a new hitter. It is what he couldn't do last year in the Majors or earlier this year in Spring Training. Spend any length of time talking pitching with Delcarmen and usually 45 seconds won't pass without him mentioning the urgency of first-pitch strikes.

"Right now, for me, it's being able to throw the first-pitch strike on my fastball, it's allowing me to throw my curveball and changeup in some key situations," said Delcarmen. "It just comes down to throwing first-pitch strikes. Without that, I would have been the same as when I was first up here. Before, if I couldn't get a strike on my fastball, I'm just sitting there -- fastball, fastball, fastball. Now, if I miss with a fastball real close, I'll come back with a changeup. Everything's kind of clicking right now."

The first pitch is a tone-setter for not just Delcarmen, but most pitchers.

"Strike one is a very, very important pitch," Nipper said. "It puts you either up or behind. It can either open up the plate for you or really close it up for you. Strike one is key for him. It takes a lot of pressure off you as a young pitcher, too. ... Getting ahead in the count is very key for him."

From the manager to the pitching coach to the development staff to the pitcher, Delcamen's success story is one of teamwork from various facets in the organization.

"You know, you always hope it's going to happen," Francona said. "You kind of draw it up and when it works like you want it to, it's gratifying. He's taken the ball in some pretty big situations and he hasn't shied away from those situations."

Local boy makes good
And, oh yeah, aside from being No. 3 on Boston's bullpen depth chart after dominant closer Jonathan Papelbon and venerable setup man Mike Timlin, Delcarmen is also the local guy. Suddenly, that's not such a distraction.

"Last year, at the beginning, I wanted to get [tickets for] everybody who wanted to go, so I was borrowing tickets from everybody," Delcarmen said. "Right now, my dad is coaching, and my mom, she comes to the game, sometimes. My friends know I'm trying to stay focused so they come once in a while. It's not even a problem at all."

For a young guy, Delcarmen is able to balance the joy of living out a dream without letting natural distractions get in the way.

"All my friends and close buddies out there, they're like, 'Out of all of us, you're the one that made it from high school and stuff like that.' Everybody is having fun with it. I'm throwing the ball well and hoping to stay up here," Delcarmen said.

The way he's throwing the ball of late, the yo-yo that Nipper spoke of might have snapped.

"Now he's coming in with the game on the line and throwing all his pitches and being very effective," Francona said. "It's given us a huge lift."

Ian Browne is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.