March 17, 2010

Sox have little relief in sight

The Time

— The Boston Red Sox undoubtedly are feeling some relief this morning, waking up in their own beds after a much needed day off. This afternoon, they will play baseball at Fenway Park for the first time since a 2-1 victory over the Rockies in Game 2 of the World Series on Oct. 25, 2007.

Before they face the winless Detroit Tigers, the Sox will be reminded once again that last fall they were the best team in the major leagues. A championship ring ceremony should certainly give this team an overdue dose of swagger after being swept by the Blue Jays in Toronto.

As they spend one more day reviewing the 2007 championship, they should look at the role of the bullpen. It's still early in the season, but there is reason for concern regarding this year's group of relievers.

Last season, the Red Sox bullpen didn't take the loss in a game until Brendan Donnelly gave up an RBI single to Dan Johnson in the 10th inning of Oakland's 5-4 win on May 1. After that loss, the Sox were 16-9 and on their way to a wire-to-wire AL East title. They didn't fall back below .500 until losing Sunday in Toronto.

That's when Manny Delcarmen came in to face Frank Thomas with the bases loaded in a 2-2 game. Two nights earlier, Delcarmen faced Thomas with two on and two outs in another tie game.

Delcarmen threw a change-up, ''a good pitch to anyone else,'' he said, and Thomas drove it 400 feet for a two-run double that broke open the game.

On Sunday, Delcarmen was determined not to get beat on an offspeed pitch. A first-pitch fastball down and away would get Thomas thinking. The problem was, the pitch wasn't down and away. It ran back inside, and Thomas crushed it for a grand slam, the 515th home run of his career.

Delcarmen was charged with just one run, the other three the responsibility of starter Josh Beckett.

Over the weekend in Toronto, Red Sox relievers inherited nine runners. Seven of them scored. Twice, the first pitcher out of the bullpen walked the first batter he faced. Each time, that walk turned into a run.

One of those walks came off David Aardsma, a reliever who suffered the loss in the fifth game of the season.

Here's what we know about the 2008 Red Sox bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon is one of the best closers in the game. Hideki Okajima was the most dependable bridge to Papelbon in 2008 and is off to a good start this year.

After that, there are plenty of question marks. Mike Timlin is on the disabled list, a year after finishing strong. He is 42 years old and struggled through the first half of 2007.

Delcarmen was expected to flourish in that seventh-inning role this year, but has given up five hits and two runs in four innings while allowing five inherited runners to score.

After that, the Sox are hoping to find a little magic among the likes of Aardsma, Bryan Corey and Javier Lopez. Julian Tavarez is the long man and also will serve as a spot starter.

The formula for bullpen success is quite simple. The less you use relievers, the better that bullpen will be. If a starter goes seven innings, you can get to the strength of that bullpen.

With the Japan trip, the Sox have not had that luxury. Forget about the jet lag and overpriced sushi, the real cost of this trip was the loss of a spring training outing for the starting pitchers. They simply have not been able to build up arm strength and can't go as deep into games as they'd like.

In Toronto, the Blue Jays got two starts of seven or more innings in three games. The Red Sox got a six-inning start from Tim Wakefield, a five-inning start from Clay Buchholz, and 42/3 innings from Beckett. They went to the bullpen early and often, and they paid the price.

By the time the Sox left Rogers Centre, the bullpen had worked 22 innings, the second-highest total in the league. Not coincidentally, Boston's ERA was the second highest in the league.

Today, Daisuke Matsuzaka takes the mound and should be fully prepared. He pitched into the seventh inning of his last game, a 2-1 win at Oakland. He'll need to pitch like that against the Tigers, one of the best lineups in the game despite their 0-6 record.

It doesn't get any easier from here. After the Tigers, there are five games with the Yankees sandwiched around a pair with Cleveland. Two weeks against some of the best offensive teams in the game. More than ever, the Sox could use a little more relief to help get through this difficult month.

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.

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