ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - There are few things more important in the playoffs than a well-functioning bullpen, and it's obvious if the Red Sox don't get back to that state, they'll be out of the playoffs sooner than they would like.
Which is why they're taking a good, hard look at journeyman righthander Bryan Corey. He's been pitching more important innings (1 2/3 scoreless frames yesterday), and it seems the Sox have more confidence in the 33-year-old. While the numbers seem to work against Corey being on the postseason roster, right now he is one of their most effective relievers.
As it stands the Sox likely will go with 11 pitchers for the playoffs. That includes four starters - Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield - and obviously Jonathan Papelbon is in.
Then you have Hideki Okajima, Eric Gagné, Mike Timlin, Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Julian Tavarez, Kyle Snyder, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester from which to choose. That's 14 pitchers for 11, maybe 12 spots.
Corey, who was drafted by the Tigers as a shortstop in the 12th round in 1993 then eventually switched to pitching, had a very good season at Pawtucket after being one of the last major league cuts out of spring training. While he's allowed himself a few moments to think about being on the playoff roster, Corey understands things don't always go according to plan. Throwing 92 miles per hour, with a slider and changeup, Corey has pitched 7 1/3 scoreless innings since coming up from Pawtucket Sept. 1. Because he was in the Boston organization, he is eligible to replace an injured player on the playoff roster.
"At times I think about it [playoffs]," Corey said. "Numerous times I've been disappointed, so I've learned at this stage of my career to just not get my hopes up for anything. I was a little disappointed and a little frustrated not making the team out of spring training, but what I've learned over the years is perseverance and the ability to keep plugging away.
"I figure they can't keep you down forever if you're showing you can do the job. I've come up here in the middle of a race and I've been happy to do whatever they've asked and to contribute in any small way I can in whatever role they feel they need me in. I've had a lot of fun doing it, so if this is the end, at least it's nice to finish up helping a team into the playoffs."
Corey played short in the Tigers and Diamondbacks systems, and when he returned to the Detroit system in 1995 a scout gave him the option of converting to pitcher after he hit .105 and .153 in the lower minors. Corey had pitched a limited number of innings at Pierce Junior College in Los Angeles, and scouts liked what they saw of his arm at the time.
He toiled year after year in places like Jamestown, Fayetteville, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Portland, Albuquerque, and Toledo, with eight organizations, but he had limited major league experience.
He was acquired by the Sox from the Rangers July 30, 2006 for righthander Luis Mendoza, and went 1-0 with a 4.57 ERA in 16 games.
Last offseason he hooked up with an old friend, Lou Birdt, and a simple 15-minute game of catch at a ballpark near his Mesa, Ariz., home helped Corey find a secret to his delivery. Birdt suggested a mechanical adjustment that improved Corey's directness to the plate. It improved all his pitches, which is why he was so effective in spring training this season for the Sox. He kept it up all season at Pawtucket, where he made 58 appearances and was, according to Sox manager Terry Francona, the PawSox' most consistent reliever. So thought his manager in Pawtucket, Ron Johnson, currently an extra coach with the Red Sox.
"We do have confidence in him," said Francona after yesterday's 5-4 loss to the Devil Rays. "He got some big outs for us."
Corey has felt grateful for any opportunity he's received, and he had been hopeful his success at the end of '06 meant his minor league days were over. But life isn't that easy. So he took care of his body, worked out regularly, and made sure he could withstand the rigors of a full season. He appears to have a lot left at the end of the '07 campaign.
Tavarez relieved Wakefield in the sixth yesterday and allowed a run before Corey was summoned by Francona to get out of the inning, which he did by throwing a double-play grounder to Akinori Iwamura. If you had to choose between Tavarez and Corey for the postseason roster right now, whom would you pick? You'd go with Corey. If you had to chose between Corey and Gagné, you'd pick Corey, too, based on the quality of their innings recently.
The Sox might be preparing Delcarmen for a bigger role in the postseason, too. He's appeared a lot lately, and was warming up yesterday although he didn't pitch. The next few days will go far in determining exactly how the Sox will line up their pen, though Francona, pitching coach John Farrell, and general manager Theo Epstein likely have most of that already decided. Yet Corey is giving them something to think about. Teams aren't really familiar with him, and there's something to be said for a pitcher with an assortment of stuff, a funky delivery, and a competitive nature.
Corey is also someone the Sox would love to reward. Francona mentioned how Corey took his demotion out of spring training with great dignity, and excelled in the setting he was put in.
For Corey, making the playoff roster also would be special because for the past couple of years he's lived with the constant unease of having a brother serving in Iraq. Chris Corey is an Air Force sergeant in his second tour of duty.
"He's doing OK, but you never know," Corey said. "You turn on the news and you hear about bombs going off and skirmishes here and there. I was e-mailing him for a while, but fewer and fewer get to him. My parents have been able to communicate with him a little bit more.
"It's very tough on our family. It's also tough being away from my own family, but I love pitching and I love the game. I decided last year that for as long as I was going to be in the game I was going to have fun doing it. The past two years I've had a lot of fun. I've had my disappointments and frustrations like anyone else would, but I know I'm throwing the ball well and I feel strong. I've had an opportunity and I just go out and do the best I can with every opportunity I have."
When they cut Corey in late March they did it with great apprehension. As we head to October, the Red Sox have to make a similar decision. Should they keep one of their most effective relievers off the playoff roster?
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.