What is one of the most refreshing aspects of this young season is the quality and depth of the Red Sox bullpen. While Jonathan Papelbon has garnered the most attention for his outstanding work at the back of the bullpen, the ability to end games (for all intents and purposes) in the sixth and seventh innings has been key to the Red Sox winning so many close games this season. What the Red Sox have that no other team can match is three established, healthy closers in the bullpen.
Mike Timlin closed effectively in a pinch last season, and despite his age, he still has been very effective coming out of the bullpen. In addition, the versatility and continued improvement of Keith Foulke as he returns from double knee surgery cannot be discounted. Foulke has filled the vital role closer for inning six through eight for the Sox.
One aspect of the disastrous closer-by-committee that the Red Sox tried to introduce back in 2003 was the premise that having your best pitcher pitch when the game is on the line, be it the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth inning. Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle, Goose Gossage, Bob Stanley, and Bruce Sutter (earlier in his career) all pitched multiple innings regularly. In fact, back in those ancient days called the late seventies, a closer was expected to pitch more than the ninth inning, often pitching two to four innings to close out a win.
The point is that even if you have a closer for the ninth inning, without people in front of him to snuff rallies in the sixth through eighth innings, the closer will not even get into the game. What doomed the Red Sox bullpen in 2003 was the talent and fragile psyches in the bullpen. For the sake of stability, relief pitchers are most comfortable with a defined role. How the pitcher is deployed is not the question, in 2003 the Red Sox had no one in the bullpen who could consistently get anyone out until they rebuilt the bullpen through trades throughout the season. The importance of the set-up men in front of the closer cannot be discounted. The deeper the talent in the bullpen, the more wins for the team.
Getting back to 2006, the Red Sox can trot out Tavarez (a better pitcher than he has shown) in the sixth inning, Foulke in the seventh, Timlin in the eighth, and Papelbon in the ninth, with great confidence even being behind a few runs because they have three closers and another really good set-up man. In fact, if/when Rudy Seanez bounces back from his early season struggles, they can use him to mix and match into the mix in the sixth through eighth innings. David Riske, when healthy in early 2005, was lights out for the Indians. His return could help as well.
With Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen pitching well in Pawtucket (and Edgar Martinez in Portland) the bullpen continues to look like a strength going forward, even with the eventual retirement of Mike Timlin and move to the starting rotation by Jonathan Papelbon. Logically, Delcarmen and Hansen should be ready to slot into the bullpen in 2007 in front of Foulke, as Papelbon moves to the rotation to set-up the devastating young 1-2 punch at the front of the rotation with Josh Beckett. The bullpen definitely is a strong point both in the present and in the near future for the Red Sox.
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For some reason I stayed up late into the night, even after Kat kicked me out of the bedroom, to watch the Yankees come back and beat the Rangers 14-13 after trailing 9-0 after two innings. What struck me most, especially in relation to what I just wrote about the Red Sox bullpen, was how weak the bullpens were for each squad. The score yo-yoed back and forth throughout the later innings as neither pitching staff could staunch the bleeding.
Most glaring was the performance of Yankees starter Shawn Chacon, whose incredible run of luck finally ran out. In his performance against the Red Sox, he seemed to be carrying a rabbits foot, four-leaf clover, and other assorted lucky charms as he continually put himself into difficult situations only to weasel out by the thinnest of margins. Finally, Texas broke through last night and chased him out early as the Red Sox should have done earlier this season.
With the seeming break-down (whether physical, mental, or a little of both) of Randy Johnson this season, the Yankees have got to be rushing back Carl Pavano. With only Mike Mussina pitching well and Johnson ineffective, Chacon having used up all his luck, Aaron Small struggling out of the bullpen, Chien-Ming Wang inconsistent, and Jared Wright, well, Jared Wright. This is hardly the days of the Yankees trotting out Mussina, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, David Cone, and David Wells at starter and having Mariano Rivera set-up by set-up men at the top of their game at the time (Steve Karsay, Mike Stanton, etc). This is all the more reason the injury to Hideki Matsui will be an issue: not every team is going to give up 14 runs.
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