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Additions give Sox pen a better finishing touch

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Keith Foulke professes to not watch "SportsCenter." He claims he never felt the urge to view highlights of his iconic postseason performances of last October.

But that one enduring moment -- Foulke leaping for an Edgar Renteria ground ball, snagging it with two hands, relaying the ball to Doug Mientkiewicz, and embracing a soaring Jason Varitek -- is rather unavoidable.

"It still kind of brings a smile to my face," said the closer, an early arrival for spring training. Pitchers and catchers report today.

Foulke, the highest-paid member of the Red Sox bullpen (three years, $21 million), had a lot to smile about yesterday when he looked around the clubhouse and saw the jerseys of those who will surround him in the bullpen, one that will be deeper and more flexible than in 2004.

That is not to discount the contributions of last year's bullpen, and those no longer with the team -- Mike Myers, Curtis Leskanic, and Ramiro Mendoza. Few New Englanders will soon forget the 5 2/3 scoreless innings of relief submitted by Foulke, Alan Embree, Myers, and Leskanic in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. Or the eight shutout innings in Game 5 by Mike Timlin, Foulke, Bronson Arroyo, Myers, Embree, and Tim Wakefield.

But, said Foulke yesterday, "I think we might have a better staff than we did last year."

As a rotation, that premise is debatable. Last year's rotation (Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe, Arroyo, and Wakefield) posted a 4.24 ERA. The six candidates for this year's rotation (Schilling, Wade Miller, David Wells, Matt Clement, Arroyo, and Wakefield) posted a 3.84 ERA.

As a bullpen, it's undebatable. Out went the 35-year-old Myers (4.40 career ERA) and 36-year-old Leskanic (4.36). In came Matt Mantei (3.86) and John Halama (4.52).

Mantei underwent shoulder surgery last June, limiting his season to 10 2/3 innings. In his last full season, 2003, the righthander posted a 2.62 ERA and converted 29 of 32 saves, reaching 97 miles per hour. This week, he's thrown off a mound and thrown hard.

"The ball was coming out of his hand like a bazooka," manager Terry Francona said Tuesday. "Ideally, he takes [Scott] Williamson's spot. Same type of arm, same type of pitcher. We all saw when we lost Willie the effect on our bullpen.

"A lot of times, sixth, seventh, eighth inning, bases loaded, you're up one, game is on the line right there, you can't bring Foulke in those games. If the bases are loaded in the seventh inning and we need a strikeout, I think Matt Mantei's got a pretty good chance to be successful. That enables us to be successful. A deep bullpen shortens games. That's how you win."

A career closer, Mantei does not expect to close this season. But he'll still keep a closer's mind-set and attributes -- a high strikeouts-per-inning ratio (1.26 in his career) and a low home run ratio (one every 10 2/3 innings for his career, better than Foulke's 9 1/3).

"He'll get a chance [to close] because Foulke gets tired," Francona said. "The more good pitchers you have, you can shorten a game, the better off we are."

Foulke, never one to shy away from taking the ball, acknowledged how much a healthy Mantei would mean to the team.

"He's going to take a lot of pressure off Mike, Alan, and myself," Foulke said. "It's what Williamson was here for last year, but he struggled with injury. You get us to the sixth inning, it's got the possibility for the game to be over right there."

On days when starters cannot get to the sixth or seventh, enter Halama. The 32-year-old southpaw has started just 114 of 205 career appearances.

"Halama gives us something we didn't have last year," Francona said. "He can start. He can do anything. And he'll do it with a great attitude. We really never got caught real short, but we had a chance to. A couple times if guys couldn't make starts we would have been in trouble."

That could happen this season, given the uncertainty of Schilling's ankle and Miller's shoulder. (Miller, according to Francona, is likely to begin the season on the disabled list.) If both righthanders begin the season on the DL, the rotation would include Wells, Clement, Arroyo, Wakefield, and either Halama or Byung Hyun Kim, who has been the subject of trade rumors since last season.

"Teams are coming to us, and we're listening," said Sox general manager Theo Epstein, refuting the suggestion that he is outwardly shopping Kim, the 26-year-old submariner. "There's a definite role for BK on this team if he pitches anywhere close to his potential. He can be a swing guy, a long guy, give us a different look vs. righties. There's so much he could do if he's as effective as he has been."

If he remains, the club would have eight pitchers who can start. Last season, they had six.

"We held our breath all year," Epstein said.

This spring, he can exhale.

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