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Baseball: AL playoffs

Arroyo is armed, ready

The Brooksville resident probably won't suffer from stage fright today in Game 3.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published October 15, 2004

BOSTON - It's not like Bronson Arroyo hasn't been on a big stage in a pressure situation before.

He was a VIP guest at a January charity rock show in Boston when he was asked - or, as others tell it, he asked - to go out and play something. Taking only a guitar and teammate Kevin Millar with him, Arroyo stood on stage in front of more than 800 people and strummed and sang his way through an impressive rendition of a difficult song, Pearl Jam's Black.

ESPN's Peter Gammons, one of the event organizers, and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, one of Arroyo's bosses, looked at each other and said the same thing: "He's got ... " - well, let's just say they weren't talking about strikes.

The Red Sox are hoping Arroyo shows the same fortitude against the Yankees tonight as he tries to get the Red Sox out of a two-games-to-none hole in the best-of-seven ALCS.

For Arroyo, the 27-year-old Brooksville resident, the assignment is the latest high point in a season during which he has risen from borderline major-leaguer to successful starter, compiling a 10-9 record in his first full season, and moving up to the No. 3 spot in the Boston rotation for the postseason. And he couldn't be having a better time.

"This is the reason you want to be a starting pitcher," he said Thursday, walking from a group interview session with the national media to another with the Fox-TV crew. "I don't want to be a starting pitcher in the major leagues pitching against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in August when we're out of it.

"These are the things you look forward to. Being down 2-0 obviously there's a little more pressure on me, but that's the way I like it. Obviously you'd rather be up 2-0 - anybody would - but I'm not backing down from the challenge."

The Sox wouldn't expect anything less. They have seen Arroyo grow into a dependable starter this season, watched as he has gotten more comfortable and confident, paused to wonder just how good he may be.

"All winter, people kept telling me if this guy gets a chance, he's going to be a good pitcher," Boston's first-year manager Terry Francona said. "He got his chance. And rather than just be content to be a fourth or fifth starter, kind of go through the year and be okay, he got hungrier as he progressed and started having some success. He's learning how to work and he's really a professional pitcher. He's going to get better, too."

Arroyo - whose parents named him after tough-guy actor Charles Bronson - comes across as something of a free spirit, whether it's the corn rows in his hair, the hundreds of songs in his head, or the refreshingly candid comments that come out of his mouth.

One day, he was one of the only Boston players admitting he'd rather play the Yankees in the ALCS than the Twins. Another day, he made the very public observation that the Red Sox pitching staff was better than the Yankees.

Thursday, he came out and practically announced that he would be throwing inside to the first three Yankees hitters, and, so what that he led the major leagues with 20 hit batters, there isn't much Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield can do about it.

"I probably throw inside less than 75 percent of the starters in the American League, but when I do go inside it's for a purpose," he said. "I have to pitch in there."

The strategic idea is to throw some fastballs inside to keep the good right-handed hitters from waiting for his breaking ball on the outside. But if he can put some doubt, or fear, in their heads, that's okay too. It was Arroyo who hit Rodriguez and turned the July 24 game into a brawl that some say turned around the Sox season, and it didn't exactly scar him.

"I know Sheffield has alluded to a few times that they've gotten hit or they thought they've got hit on purpose," Arroyo said. "I realize they don't like it. Nobody likes getting hit with a 90 mph fastball. But regardless of the situation, I do have to pitch the way I think I can to win. And that's the way I'll go about it."

Arroyo has been doing things his own way since the Pirates drafted him in the third round out of Hernando High in 1995. Eight years in the Pittsburgh organization got him only parts of three seasons in the majors, and he was frustrated by the lack of an extended opportunity.

The Sox thought he could do better. They claimed him in February 2003 for $20,000, sneaked him back through waivers so he could pitch every five days at Triple-A Pawtucket, and watched him develop.

He went 12-6 and had a perfect game for the PawSox.

A solid 2004 spring earned him the fifth starter's job, and he eventually worked his way up in the rotation, improving as the year went on, going 5-0, 3.78 in his last nine starts. And there wasn't a hint of concern when he made his first postseason start last week, pitching extremely well in the division series clincher against Anaheim. "He's been big for us all year," centerfielder Johnny Damon said.

Arroyo's second postseason start comes tonight, and while he acknowledges the added pressure, he doesn't exactly appear to be buckling under. Some friends are coming up from Brooksville, and the stakes might be a bit higher, but he's not planning to do anything different.

The song, you might say, remains the same.

[Last modified October 15, 2004, 01:32:13]


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