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Sox relief corps was pitcher perfect

After Byung Hyun Kim made an inappropriate gesture to the fans who booed him during introductions, it figured one of two things would happen. Either the night would continue to plunge into further darkness or it could only get better from there. Thankfully for the Red Sox, the latter occurred.

It was Trot Nixon who stole the show with a pinch-hit, two-run homer in the 11th inning, allowing the Red Sox to survive at least one more day with a 3-1 victory over Oakland in Game 3 of the Division Series. But credit the unit that has been under constant fire from Day 1 this season -- the bullpen.

Kim never got into the game. He was warming up late, but he never got his revenge against the fans by pitching lights out for an inning or two. That's because Mike Timlin did it for him. After Derek Lowe departed after seven strong innings -- his sinker was deadly -- and the game tied, 1-1, Timlin held the status quo, firing three scoreless innings, striking out three batters in one of the most impressive bullpen performances of the season at a time when the relief corps had no margin for error.

Timlin, the sage veteran, retired all nine batters he faced. Some wondered if manager Grady Little would allow Timlin to pitch a fourth inning, but Scott Williamson came on and fired a perfect 11th.

Timlin has been superb at Fenway all season, posting a 1.43 ERA as opposed to his 5.90 road ERA. He was perfect in his lone inning of work in relief of Pedro Martinez in Game 1. Little brought on Kim and Alan Embree and the pair blew a ninth-inning lead and forced the game to extras. But last night, Timlin was unhittable. He was throwing in the 90s and keeping the ball down. He was getting the leadoff man, which is something he excelled at all season. Leadoff hitters batted a paltry .157 against Timlin, who struck out 13 and didn't walk a first hitter all year.

"We've done a lot of talking about that bullpen since Opening Day," said manager Grady Little. "We're awfully proud of what they did. It was outstanding. Timlin did a great job." Asked whether Timlin might be available today after throwing three innings, the manager said he would have to wait until today to decide, but he told his very reliable reliever to "go into the whirlpool and stay there until the next game."

You wonder what might have happened had Timlin been able to pitch beyond an inning in Game 1. Would the Sox be up, 2-1, right now? Little said "tonight was a different situation. He was getting them out with a short number of pitches. He wasn't laboring out there."

"I didn't want to let D-Lowe down," Timlin said. After he had pitched two scoreless innings, Little told him he wanted him to go out and get the first hitter out in the 10th inning. "I said `OK, that's what I'll do.' " Timlin made two stellar fielding plays, on an Eric Chavez grounder in the eighth and a Scott Hatteberg tapper in the ninth -- where he had to reach high for the ball. "Not bad for an old guy," he said. "I took some ribbing for those."

Little even had Martinez in the bullpen, and the ace did play catch in eighth. Because it was Martinez's day to throw, he told Little he could be available for a couple of innings. Little said he was going to limit it to one specific inning.

"In one case he was going to pitch," Little said. "If we had the lead he was going to pitch the top of the ninth if we were able to get a run across in the bottom of the eighth inning." That did not happen. Nomar Garciaparra reached second on a single and a force out, but Manny Ramirez struck out swinging and after David Ortiz was intentionally walked, Kevin Millar fanned to end the inning and Martinez sat back down.

It was Williamson who took over for Timlin. Williamson's troubles late in the year have been well-chronicled. He's posted a 2.70 ERA in save situations this season and an 8.56 ERA otherwise. Though there was no save on the line, Williamson clearly had his best stuff, fanning Miguel Tejada, getting Chavez on a sinking liner to Ramirez in left, and freezing Ramon Hernandez on strike three to end the inning, setting the stage for Nixon. A bullpen win was nothing new to the Sox, who tied Cincinnati, Williamson's former team, with 57 decisions. For all of the grief the bullpen has taken this season, this was a night to relish. Nixon's home run and Oakland's crazy base running will always overshadow the bullpen's performance, but everyone in the Sox clubhouse know who deserves a big chunk of the credit for the dramatic win.

"[The bullpen] did a phenomenal job," said Nixon. "People talk about our offense being this and that, but they have a great offense over there. Our pitching did a great job against them."

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