As rumors of trades and call-ups around Pawtucket on Wednesday afternoon, pitchers Tsuyoshi Wada of Norfolk and Allen Webster of the PawSox created their own story on the mound.
Webster won the strikeout battle with a career-high 12 to Wada's 10, but the Tides hurler won the war as Norfolk blanked Pawtucket, 3-0. After the third inning, the two clubs combined to put one runner on base -- a two-out single by the Red Sox's Justin Henry in the sixth.
While the game was being played, other factors were at work as the day wore toward the MLB trade deadline.
Outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. was pulled in the sixth inning of Tuesday night's game and was not in the lineup Wednesday, fueling speculation that the prospect would be dealt as Boston gears up for a pennant push. Both Bradley and manager Gary Disarcina downplayed such suspicion, saying Bradley had a sore arm.
"It's crazy," Bradley told Tim Britton of the Providence Journal. "Everyone has to make some kind of assumption, got to have something exciting to talk about. You might as well start off with me coming out of a game. ... It's weird hearing that. Everybody's fighting to get who they want."
When Boston did make a trade for pitcher Jake Peavy on Tuesday night, sending infielder Jose Iglesias to the Tigers, the Red Sox chose to call up Brock Holt rather than the more experienced Will Middlebrooks or top prospect Xander Bogaerts. The 25-year-old Holt was hitting .264/.328/.293 in Triple-A, while Middlebrooks, 24, has a .257/.323/.451 line for Pawtucket. Middlebrooks hit just .192/.228/.389 in 53 Major League games earlier this season, however, before being optioned to Triple-A.
Boston manager John Farrell told WEEI, "The suggestion that we're down on Will, just by virtue of Brock's recall, no. ... We know [he's] still a very talented player who's still very much a part of this organization and a big part of it."
Holt offers greater flexibility than Middlebrooks in that he can play shortstop, but Farrell added that the Sox are in "a situation that's somewhat temporary" at third base.
Frustration at the situation and a recent slump at the plate -- he's 2-for-20 over his last six games -- appeared to boil over for Middlebrooks on Wednesday. After committing a fielding error in the top of the third, allowing Norfolk's third run, and striking out to end the bottom half of the inning, Middlebrooks was ejected by home plate umpire Joey Amaral after slamming his helmet.
"Watching him especially over the last day, it's been tough. ... He's got to learn how to control the frustration," Disarcina told the Journal.
"I overreacted," Middlebrooks allowed. "You try to have good at-bats, and to have them taken away from you, it gets frustrating."
Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Bogaerts continued to impress. The shortstop prospect -- though he's also played five games at third for the PawSox -- is hitting .279/.383/.481 with eight homers and 24 RBIs in 43 games since his promotion from Double-A Portland. On Wednesday Bogaerts doubled in the first and singled in the third, but was subsequently caught stealing. It was Bogaerts' third multi-hit game in his last four outings.
Bogaerts, a native of Aruba, offered an honest answer regarding all the trade speculation: "I try not to pay attention, but I have Facebook. I have Twitter."
In addition to the individual story lines at play, the PawSox's loss gave them a 9-19 record in July. After building a comfortable lead in the IL North, Pawtucket now finds itself a game behind first-place Rochester.
The game itself was a much tidier matter, clocking in at 2:37 thanks to dominant pitching by both clubs.
Pawtucket stranded a runner at third in each of the first three frames, but only Henry reached safely in the final six innings.
Norfolk scored all three of its runs in the third inning. Zelous Wheeler opened the frame with a single and Xavier Avery followed with a ground-rule double. After issuing a walk to Luis Exposito to load the bases, Webster, the Pawtucket starter, misplayed a comebacker by Yamaico Navarro allowing Wheeler to score. Both Exposito and Navarro were one-time PawSox.
Webster next struck out Eric Thames on a wild pitch that brought home Avery, and Exposito plated the Tides' third run after Middlebrooks' fielding error.
After that wild frame, both hurlers settled in. Webster struck out the side in the fourth and cruised through the fifth and sixth. Though falling to 5-4 with the loss, Webster was charged with just one earned run on three hits and a walk over six strong innings. The last Pawtucket hurler to notch 12 strikeouts was Kyle Weiland against Rochester on June 29, 2011.
Wada, a 32-year-old left-hander from Japan, had his finest outing since signing with the Orioles in December 2011. After undergoing Tommy John surgery on May 11, 2012, Wada joined the Tides on May 16, 2013, and picked up his first stateside win on June 6.
"He's had some patches where he wasn't getting results, but he's made good progress throughout the summer," said Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin. "All four of his pitches -- fastball, curve, slider, change -- were working well today. and his fastball was very crisp with good late movement."
Wada allowed five hits over 6 2/3 scoreless innings to improve to 3-5 with the Tides. His 10 strikeouts were a season high.
Asked how Wada has adjusted to life in the U.S. and in the Minor Leagues, Griffin was glowing.
"Baseball language is universal. He's always in the clubhouse with a smile, mingling with the rest of the guys. The players love him -- he got a lot of hugs in the dugout today -- and he's been a great teammate. He's a class act and has been a joy to coach."
Though the parent Orioles are also in playoff contention and Tides players are similarly subject to the uncertainty of the trade deadline, Griffin said the club was unaffected.
"It was business as usual today, honestly. The guys took care of things, got the job done, and came away with a win."
After the game's conclusion, the Orioles did make a deal involving a former member of Griffin's club. L.J. Hoes, the Orioles' No. 7 prospect and a Tides outfielder until he was promoted to Baltimore on Saturday, was included in a trade with the Astros for right-handed pitcher Bud Norris. Left-hander Josh Hader, No. 5 on the O's list and currently with Delmarva of the South Atlantic League, also went to Houston in the deal, along with a 2014 Competitive Balance Draft pick.