The Kids Are All Right

Theo Epstein called Aug. 17 a "feel-good day for our scouting department [and] player development" when Clay Buchholz started the first game of a doubleheader against the Angels before Jacoby Ellsbury batted leadoff and played centerfield in the nightcap.

Less than three weeks later, it's clear that day represented the dawn of a new era for the Sox. The "$100 million player and development machine" Epstein talked of building when he took over as general manager in 2002 is up and running.

Buchholz, a supplemental pick in the 2005 draft, threw a no-hitter Saturday in his second big league start. Ellsbury, the Sox' first pick in that watershed draft, nearly pulled off the hitting equivalent Tuesday, when he fell a double shy of the cycle in the Sox' 4-3 win over the Blue Jays. He hit his first big league homer Sunday, which means he has as many homers in the last three games as he did in 436 minor league games this season, and is hitting .452 in his first 31 major league at-bats. He's also made sparkling diving catches in both left and centerfield.

Dustin Pedroia, the Sox' first selection in the 2004 draft, made the defensive gem of Buchholz' no-hitter (a diving stop of Miguel Tejada's grounder behind second base in the seventh inning) and has five straight multi-hit games to lift his average to .329, which would be the highest average ever by a rookie second baseman and the fifth-highest average ever by a rookie.

Jon Lester, a second-round pick in 2002 who is barely a year removed from being diagnosed with cancer, threw six innings to earn the win in a 3-2 victory over the Orioles Sunday. Jonathan Papelbon, a 2003 draftee, is the first Sox closer to ever record consecutive 30-save seasons and has recorded a save in each of the last three days—an especially encouraging development considering he was on the shelf a year ago at this time. And Brandon Moss, an eighth-round pick in 2002, is 2-for-13 in limited duty thus far, but he's impressed the Sox with his ability to adapt quickly to the majors.

To see the farm system harvesting homegrown players who can thrive in the middle of the pennant race is particularly satisfying for Epstein, who has made it a priority to draft high-character players who can handle the unique pressures of Boston. "They don't get big heads, they keep their composure," Epstein said. "It's not an easy thing to do: Step in here in a pennant race when you're trying to find your way in a big league clubhouse and go out and play winning baseball.

"[It's important to] find kids with the right makeup and continuing to stress that in our player development—that you're not just trying to get to the big leagues, you're trying to get there so when you do you're confident enough to come in and contribute right away."

While the Sox hope for immediate contributions from their homegrown players, they don't necessarily expect it, which is why they typically provide rookies a brief sample of big league life before sending them back to the minors to complete their seasoning.

Buchholz was optioned to Pawtucket immediately after his first start while Ellsbury had two brief stints with the Sox totaling seven days before he was promoted again Saturday. Moss spent three days with the Sox when Eric Hinske was on the bereavement list in mid-August.

Papelbon made his big league debut July 31, 2005, went back to Pawtucket the next day and was up for good less than three weeks later. Pedroia was promoted for the first time last Aug. 22, with the Sox already out of the playoff race, and played sparingly down the stretch. Only Lester, who was promoted from Pawtucket last June 10 and made 15 starts before he fell ill, was expected to assume a regular role right away.

The hope is the initial exposure allows a player to shake off the nerves, become familiar with his surroundings and return feeling as if he belongs. "I think ‘Mossy' looks like a different person," Terry Francona said. "Jacoby looks more comfortable. Not to make light of it too much, but they don't have to be showed where the shower is, things like that. They know the guys, they know what's expected of them. Hopefully, the more the newness wears off, the energy doesn't. The nervousness leaves and they can go about competing."

With the Sox hurtling towards October, the question is how much can the club expect out of the youngsters—particularly Buchholz and Ellsbury, whose brilliant starts conjure up memories of the likes of Jaret Wright, Timo Perez, John Lackey, Francisco Rodriguez and Bobby Jenks, all of whom were midseason callups who went on to star in the postseason.

"There's an infusion of energy," said Mike Lowell, who was with the Marlins in 2003 when rookies Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera emerged as stars on the eventual world champions. "When you have a special season, you get some big performances from people you don't expect."


Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE.

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