FORT MYERS, Fla. — Stitching together the Boston Red Sox bullpen hasn’t been a major overhaul.

Boston again will rely on the young arms of Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez, along with crafty left-hander Hideki Okajima and possibly the newly acquired Boof Bonser.

Then there’s the group of pitchers assigned to the far corner of the clubhouse at City of Palms Park.

“The old man section here,” Joe Nelson said, sitting among others in the corner, “has been throwing the ball pretty well.”

Nelson, 35, a former Portland Sea Dogs reliever, was referring to himself, Alan Embree, 40, Brian Shouse, 41, and Scott Atchison, who turns 34 on Monday.

“There’s a battle going on in the pen. We’re all friends. There’s no animosity. We all want to be on the opening-day team.”

Nelson was speaking Thursday and by Friday, you could cross Shouse off the list. He was released in the morning.

But the field of candidates didn’t narrow. In the afternoon, the Red Sox signed veteran left-hander Scott Schoeneweis, 36, to a minor-league deal.

Want to know how tough the battle for a bullpen spot is? Shouse made 10 appearances and gave up only one earned run in 9 1/3 innings.

A 0.96 ERA gets you released?

“We asked him to come in and compete and he did a very good job of that,” Boston Manager Terry Francona said. “Statistically he had a tremendous spring.

“Saying that, after our meetings, and looking at the construction, potentially, of our bullpen, it’s probably not set up (for him).”

Shouse, a left-hander like Embree, was considered a lefty specialist and it appears the Red Sox would like someone more versatile.

Embree isn’t a specialist. Heck, left-handers batted better against him (.326) last year than right-handers (.264).

But Embree is a veteran who Francona has relied on in the past, so the Red Sox are taking a look at him.

Atchison has only 31 games of major-league experience, back in 2004 and ’05 with Seattle. He’s pitched in Japan the past two years. So far he has a 1.86 ERA in 92/3 innings.

Schoeneweis appears to be a no-risk chance on Boston’s part. His ERA was 7.13 last year in Arizona. His numbers weren’t great in the spring (six earned runs in seven innings) but that was the result of two bad outings. He did have 10 strikeouts.

Bonser, 28, was used mostly as a starter in Minnesota. He’s been considered a long reliever/spot starter for Boston. He was slowed by a strained groin but threw a bullpen session Friday.

Nelson may be an unknown to most, but this is his third stint in the Red Sox organization.

Ardent Sea Dogs fans will remember Nelson as Portland’s closer for the early part of the 2004 season.

Then, Nelson was a 29-year-old veteran with only two innings of major-league experience, along with a Tommy John surgery, and two shoulder surgeries.

“When the arm surgeries are outnumbering the big-league innings by one, that’s never a good thing,” Nelson said.

“I was almost out of baseball by 2004.”

Instead, Nelson turned a last-chance opportunity into gold. Nelson developed a killer change-up, gripping the ball between his ring and middle fingers — “Vulcan” style.

He recorded a 1.78 ERA in Portland for 25 games, was promoted to Pawtucket, and eventually got into three major-league games (earning himself a World Series ring).

In 2005, Nelson’s perseverance was tested, being signed by four organizations (released by three), never getting out of the minors.

Nelson then pitched in the majors for the Royals (2006), Marlins (2008) and Rays (2009). His ERA in 59 games with Florida was 2.00, then 4.02 in 42 games with Tampa Bay.

Still, Nelson was looking for a job this year.

The Red Sox offered him a minor-league contract with an invitation to major-league spring training.

“They said, ‘If you come in and do what you’re capable of, this might be a good spot.’ And it has been,” Nelson said.

Nelson could beat out a left-hander for the spot because his change-up makes him tough against left-handers.

Nelson carries a 3.00 ERA this spring in nine innings, with 12 strikeouts and three walks. After a rough outing March 6, he’s allowed only three hits and one run over seven innings.

“I’m throwing better,” said Nelson, relaxed in the clubhouse, and still remembering those days in Portland when he arrived, looking like a washed-up pitcher.

“That last desperate run has lasted a lot longer than I thought,” Nelson said. “Maybe I’m a marathoner.”

 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

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