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April 24, 2012 at 11:56 AM

Aaron Cook making his case for big league spot as opt-out date looms

Aaron Cook (Kelly O'Connor)
PAWTUCKET, R.I. – It’s no secret that sinkerballing righty Aaron Cook can void his contract with the Red Sox if he's not called up to the big club by May 1.  As a veteran of ten major league seasons who was once considered the top pitcher on the Rockies’ staff, he is unlikely to stick with Pawtucket past that date. Whispers of other interested teams have already begun to surface.

“Everybody knows what's going on, he's battling for a spot every time he goes out there,” said PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler. “He knows that. He's keeping himself in contention if the phone rings.”

With May quickly approaching, each start he makes gains importance for both him and the organization. In tossing a one-run complete game effort like Monday night’s seven-inning doubleheader nightcap, he did nothing to hurt his cause.

His catcher, Ryan Lavarnway, had high praise for the 33-year-old, saying, “Pretty much everything he threw up there they were swinging over the top of or pounding it into the ground, and that's what you want to see out of a guy who has that kind of stuff.”

Lavarnway is referring to Cook’s trademark sinker, which made him one of the better groundball-inducing pitchers in the majors over the last decade. Of the 30 batters he faced on Monday, 18 Durham hitters pounded the ball into the ground, including two double-play balls to end threats in the first and third innings. He also struck out a batter.

“When he gets in trouble, he just keeps throwing the sinker in there, and he's got a cutter and slider,” Beyeler said. “He does a nice job. He catches the ball and gets rid of it. He keeps the guys in the game and they play good defense behind him.”

Cook did give up eight hits, but was able to work around them, partially with the help of double-plays. Three of those hits were on the ground, and he didn’t give up hard contact until later in the game as he began to tire. Half of the hits he allowed were after the fifth inning, and the two walks issued in the game were in the sixth and seventh.

“He got a little bit tired, started leaving the ball up a little bit,” Lavarnway said. “He gave up a double to start the [seventh] inning just because he left a ball up.”

“I think I'm right where I need to be,” Cook said. “Getting a little deeper into games, getting that little fatigue factor. Our guys [were] scoring a bunch of runs, having to sit down and having a long time between innings. I had everything I possibly needed to get ready in that game today. I feel like the ball's coming out of my hand well and I'm commanding the strike zone. I feel like I'm where I need to be.”

Lavarnway said Cook’s velocity was up in the outing from his previous starts in the season, something the catcher attributed to his leg being healthier as Cook had some fatigue earlier in spring training. Injuries have derailed his last couple seasons, but he said that he is feeling completely recovered from those ailments.

“There is no comparison [to last two seasons],” said Cook. “I didn't have a healthy body basically–leg injury, broken finger, sore shoulder, and just a number of things that compounded. And to be healthy now, there is no comparison.”

As for his progression this season, both he and Lavarnway agreed that consistency has been the major improvement. The sinker has had more drop, velocity, and Cook pointed to location of the pitch as the most important factor.

“I think just the sharpness of all the pitches,” said Cook. “The sinker's going down more, it's consistent, and I'm able to throw my breaking stuff when I need to. It's just progressively building. I feel like I'm where I need to be.”

Cook has seemingly done everything he can to prove he’s ready for a return to majors. It’s now up to the Red Sox to decide whether the veteran is valuable enough to open up a spot on the big league pitching staff as the time ticks towards his opt-out date.

Matt Huegel is Senior Editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegelSP.