PORTLAND – The tension that had been building for three days at Hadlock Field was about to boil over and threatened to come charging out of the visitor’s dugout.
Portland Sea Dogs reliever Craig Hansen had just plunked Binghamton’s Carlos Gomez in the back with a fastball. It was the seventh time a Mets’ batter and the third time Gomez had been hit in the series, and their manager, Juan Samuel, incredulous that a warning was not issued, huffed and puffed out of the third base coaching box toward the home plate umpire. Moments later, players and coaches spilled out of the dugout toward home.
Hansen, a tall (6-foot-5), slender (185 pounds) 22-year-old right-hander, looked on with bemusement from the front of the mound. Usually it’s the pitcher who gets charged by the opposition in such situations.
With runners at first and second, the inning continued to a two-strike count on the next batter, Wilson Batista. While the moment and some Sea Dogs fans called for Hansen to put the Mets away with his blazing 96 miles per hour fastball, the reliever had other ideas.
“I’m still basically doing my work,” Hansen said after the Sea Dogs’ win. “I knew what I was going to throw before (Portland catcher Alberto) Concepcion called it.”
Much as he’d have enjoyed raring back and putting an exclamation point on the inning with some high heat, Hansen wasn’t going to deviate from the program. He threw a slider that rode in on the left-handed Batista at 87 miles per hour for strike three.
“Hansen kept his composure. I thought he handled himself very professionally,” said Portland manager Todd Claus, who was the only person to leave the Sea Dogs’ dugout during the brouhaha and stayed within a few paces of Hansen in case any of the Mets decided to take their anger out on him.
“He didn’t overthrow in that situation, although he did go back and get a little extra velocity when he needed it,” he added. “We all know he’s got a fastball, but he’s not here to work on his fastball. To go to a quality secondary pitch in a big situation is great for his development.”
The inning, Hansen’s second of the day, must have pleased the Boston brass. But then, there hasn’t been much to not like about his work so far. Through Friday, Hansen hadn’t given up a run in eight innings of work. Opponents were hitting .111 against him.
Those numbers are more impressive considering the Sea Dogs have intentionally restrained Hansen from using his fastball, the very pitch that got him drafted out of St. John’s University by the Red Sox in the first round (26th overall) of last June’s amateur entry draft.
From college to the show’
Hansen threw almost exclusively fastballs and sliders during a whirlwind three month tour that carried him from the NCAA regionals to the Gulf Coast League to Portland and finally to Boston in September.
“I was very grateful to be able to do all that within one year,” he said.
His rapid rise through the system last year and a strong performance with the Red Sox during spring training fueled speculation that he would head north to either Boston or Triple-A Pawtucket when training camp broke. But general manager Theo Epstein told him he was going back to Portland to refine his slider and develop a change-up. The news surprised him, but he quickly understood that it wasn’t a demotion.
“I wasn’t disappointed when they told me exactly what was going on and how they were putting me on a schedule and how it was easier for me to get the schedule done in Portland than anywhere else,” he said.
Some words of encouragement from a Red Sox leader made it easier to swallow, too.
“David Ortiz said You could get called up from anywhere,'” Hansen recalled. “He said he got called up from High-A to Minnesota. He’s like You got called up last year from Portland. You could do it again.'” Hearing words like that from a guy of his stature, it’s amazing.”
Getting a grip
Hansen was just starting to get comfortable with his change-up when he returned to Portland last week for the Sea Dogs’ first homestand.
“The change-up’s coming along real well,” he said. “I’ve changed the grip on it a couple of times trying to find the right grip. I found the right grip for now and I’m sticking with it and the control is coming along pretty good.”
He’s working on finding a consistent velocity for the off-speed pitch, somewhere around the low 80s, to complement his fastball and hard slider.
He now realizes the best place for him to do that for the time being is Portland.
“You really can’t get on a schedule as I am right now,” Hansen said. “Up here, I feel like I can get the most work in.”
He said he doesn’t know how long the Red Sox plan on keeping him in Portland or what role they ultimately have planned for him, though it’s widely believed that he’s the closer of the future in Boston.
He said he isn’t anticipating a call-up to Triple-A or the majors any time soon, and he doesn’t feel like he missed an opportunity when he saw former Sea Dog Jonathan Papelbon take over that role from Keith Foulke just two games into the season.
“I’m just going with the flow right now. Papelbon has done a great job up there. Keith Foulke has done a great job and all of their relievers up there are just doing tremendous. The pitching up there is just amazing right now. Whatever happens with me, as long as I’m pitching, I’m fine. That’s all that I want to do.”