PAWTUCKET — Clayton Mortensen’s 2013 season has featured a wide range of emotions.
From making Boston’s Opening Day roster to landing on the disabled list with a right groin strain to getting designated for assignment for the first time ever, the 28-year-old Mortensen is living baseball proof that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Moving past what seemingly must feel like a lifetime’s worth of transactions that were compartmentalized into a short period has perhaps been reconcilable thanks to the right-handed pitcher’s new role with the Pawtucket Red Sox.
Viewed as a long reliever within the bullpen structure the moment the Red Sox acquired him from Colorado in exchange for infielder Marco Scutaro on Jan. 21, 2012, Mortensen will make his fourth consecutive start for the PawSox Monday night at McCoy Stadium against fellow International League playoff hopeful Buffalo.
The switch from coming into games to taking the ball in the first inning has proven seamless with Mortensen tallying a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings over his first three starts. From the player’s vantage point, he’s returning to his roots. Mortensen was mainly a starter during his first four pro seasons before converting to relieving in 2011, a season that saw him pitch 16 times for the Rockies and make 10 appearances out of the bullpen.
“It’s kind of nice to be able to do it over again and remember how it felt to be a starter,” Mortensen expressed. “I told (PawSox pitching coach Rich Sauveur) after my first start that I wouldn’t mind going back into the starting rotation. The way things worked out, there was a spot open. We both said, ‘Let’s see how it goes.’
“I feel comfortable, but at the drop of a hat, I could go back to the bullpen,” Mortensen continued. “That’s just a thing I need to know for myself and for the team to know that I could do either way and do it effectively.”
Mortensen didn’t mince words when he stated that this year has been a grind. He distinguished himself as a valuable addition to Boston’s relief corps, composing a 3.21 ERA in 26 appearances. His 42 innings spanned six major-league stints as Mortensen still had one option year remaining.
Baseball-wise, Mortensen entered the 2013 season in a good place, starting with Red Sox manager John Farrell awarding him a bullpen spot despite a spring training that featured mixed results (5.23 ERA in 10.1 innings while holding Grapefruit League batters to a .194 batting average).
Numbers aside, it marked the first time that Mortensen broke camp with his name attached to a big-league roster. The euphoric turn of events soon gave way to a painful reality that something wasn’t quite right, nor had it been right for some time.
As much as Mortensen attempted to soldier along, he couldn’t shake the groin strain that reached its nadir on May 18, when he was removed after recording just two outs in a game at Minnesota. The particular outing also featured two hits and a hit batsman.
Mortensen posted seven additional relief outings following that May afternoon in the Twin Cities before the Red Sox placed him and his 5.34 ERA in 30.1 innings on the disabled list on June 11.
“It’s an injury that’s been nagging for a long time, but in hindsight, I thought I could work through it, which is when you develop bad habits. It’s hard to pitch when you don’t feel right,” Mortensen admitted. “It was something that wouldn’t hinder me to the point that I couldn’t throw, but it was something that I could feel every time because my delivery would change. I couldn’t load on my back leg or drive the ball to home plate. As a result, my shoulder started to take the brunt of it.”
A return to the Red Sox would prove short lived. Mortensen didn’t pitch in the three days between his activation off the D.L. and getting DFA’d on June 29, his spot on the active roster going to infielder Jonathan Diaz.
“If you don’t understand that it’s a business, it’s a move that can definitely mess with your head,” said Mortensen. “I took it with a grain of salt that ‘Hey, it happened to be me.’ I knew that my numbers weren’t good, but at the same time I knew I could perform at this level.”
Even though he had been hurt, it was a bit surprising to see Mortensen, given the success he enjoyed in 2012, return to the same organization that had bumped him off the radar. Asked to reflect on another career first, Mortensen chose to view his taken-off-the-roster situation in another light.
“It’s kind of hard for team to say that this guy hasn’t thrown in a big-league game in 18 days, so we really don’t know where he’s at. We’re not going to grab him and roll him out in a big-league situation where the game matters,” said Mortensen, who remained in his Boston apartment while anxiously awaiting the next step. “I was hoping that I would get picked up by another team, but I was happy in sense that I got to stay here. The Red Sox know what I can do.”
Mortensen knew what the first order of business entailed upon joining the PawSox on July 6. Shaking off the rust would prove challenging – his first Triple-A outing as a non-member of the Red Sox’ 40-man roster saw him walk three and allow a home run in two innings. It didn’t get much better, as Lehigh Valley tagged him for four runs in two innings on July 27.
“I had to get my arm and legs back in shape, so it was like starting back from square one again,” said Mortensen.
Then came August 2, a night that saw the PawSox in need of help after original starter Steven Wright was summoned to Boston. Manager Gary DiSarcina turned to Mortensen, who ended up blanking Norfolk over four innings. He threw 49 pitches against the Tides, which served as a jumping-off point to the 79 pitches he issued over six innings against Louisville last Wednesday.
“He’s been huge,” stated DiSarcina matter-of-factly. “It’s been unexpected because when we got him, we didn’t know where he was physically. He didn’t perform well out of the bullpen, but he’s almost shined more as a starter. It’s been a positive and a highlight for us.”
Mortensen feels that he’s acquitted himself just fine in a season filled with travails that have given way to a period of solace. Still, he’s far from content, but also realistic.
“I would love to get back up with that team. It’s a fun group of guys,” he said. “I started the year with them and I would like to finish the year with them.
“If not, I’ll take it into the offseason, work hard and get ready for next year, wherever that may be,” he added. “It’s one of those things where you can’t worry about things that are out of your control. Over my career, I’ve learned to deal with the ups and downs.”
As for Sunday’s game, the PawSox received strong starting pitching from Charlie Haeger, timely hitting from Jackie Bradley Jr. and clutch defense from shortstop Jonathan Diaz in the team’s 3-1 win over Buffalo before 10,455 fans.
Pawtucket featured a knuckleball pitcher for the second straight day as Haeger drew the start one night after the same Bisons outfit knocked around Steven Wright (five runs in five innings). Haeger retired 15 of 17 through five innings before allowing a solo home run to Clint Robinson in the sixth, a shot that cut Pawtucket’s advantage to 2-1.
Other than making a mistake with his fastball, Haeger was brilliant. He ended up tossing six innings of one-run ball with five strikeouts and two walks.
“Steven throws his knuckler harder, so there’s more tumbling action,” said DiSarcina when asked to compare Wright and Haeger. “Charlie pitched well.”
Bradley provided the PawSox with an insurance run in the seventh inning when he launched a solo home run into the right-field picnic area. His 10th round tripper also resulted in his second RBI on the afternoon.
Diaz was hitless at the plate, but took away three potential hits due to his stellar glovework. Inserted as Pawtucket’s No. 3 hitter with Alex Hassan on the disabled list, Diaz came up huge on a force-out play that not only lowered the curtain on the top of the seventh, but also stranded the potential tying run for Buffalo.
“He also got the first run for us by tagging up on that deep fly ball,” said DiSarcina about a heads-up baserunning play Diaz made in the fourth inning. “He was the MVP of the game.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03