Steven Wright was shellacked in his last outing. The Triple-A Pawtucket knuckleballer gave up eight runs -- six earned -- on 12 hits in 4 2/3 innings in a 9-7 loss to Norfolk last Tuesday. With his specialty pitch notoriously fickle for all hurlers, he turned his focus to one of his other offerings with the help of a new teammate.
"I was playing long catch with [Jose] Contreras between that last start and this one, and honestly, I was just focusing getting backspin on my fastball," Wright said. "Throwing in between, I was probably throwing 90 percent fastballs because all I'm concerned with is getting everything I can down. If I can stay behind my fastball, I can stay behind the knuckleball. I'm just looking to repeat everything in my delivery."
The result was a 180-degree turnaround Sunday afternoon.
Wright scattered four hits and a walk while striking out seven in a complete-game victory as the PawSox blanked Lehigh Valley, 2-0. It was his second shutout of the season, bookending the month of July with a pair of such performances after blanking Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on July 1.
The 28-year-old right-hander took a no-hitter into the sixth inning before IronPigs center fielder Tyson Gillies singled up the middle to break up the bid. Wright wiped away the runner two pitches later when he snared Leandro Castro's bunt attempt to start a double play.
Lehigh Valley managed a pair of singles in the seventh and Cody Asche doubled and advanced to third on a wild pitch in the ninth, but the visiting squad couldn't score on either occasion.
The knuckleballer finished his efficient outing after just 96 pitches, 72 of which were for strikes.
"For me, the big thing was the ability to throw a first-pitch strike," said Wright, who tossed them for 21 of the 32 batters he faced on the afternoon. "That was huge for me, especially on my knucklers. You get ahead 0-1, and you obviously have the advantage. Sometimes balls can come up high for me, and that's where I get into trouble. That didn't happen today."
Of course, it's more difficult for the California native to hit the strike zone with any consistency, given how much the knuckleball can dance around the zone. So what's the strategy for a pitcher who doesn't know exactly where his pitch will end up when he lets go?
"For me, it's obviously different," he said. "The biggest thing is just to keep it in a small circle, so I aim for the catcher's mask. That way, I know if I hit the mask, it's going to drop in the strike zone.
"I've been erratic with the release point in the past, which means I've been erratic with the pitch. If I can repeat my mechanics, that's where the results kick in."
Enter the fastball Wright worked on with Contreras over the last week. With a renewed focus that resulted in refined mechanics, he was able to improve to 5-6 with a 3.89 ERA in 19 International League starts this season. His seven strikeouts on the afternoon matched a season high.
Despite making his Major League debut this season -- he allowed five runs on nine hits in 9 1/3 innings over a pair of relief appearances with the Red Sox -- it's been an up-and-down 2013 campaign for the right-hander, after posting a 1.93 ERA in April, 5.97 in May, 4.65 in June and 2.20 in July after Sunday.
But this latest gem felt like the culmination of what Wright believes is a turnaround.
"My last seven or eight starts, minus the Norfolk one obviously, I feel like I've really been able to repeat my delivery and hit the strike zone with some regularity," he said. "It feels like I'm getting back to where I was last year [10-7 with a 2.54 ERA in the Minors]. I've just got to let the knuckleball work now that it's feeling better. Let them try to hit it, get ground balls and get outs."
Top Red Sox prospect Xander Bogaerts went 2-for-4 in the win. Jackie Bradley Jr. was 1-for-3 with a walk and a stolen base from the top spot in the PawSox order.