TORONTO - The extolling of the bullpen went on for months last season. One of the best in baseball, along with the pen in San Diego. The Red Sox had relievers to fit each role, each situation, and virtually all of them excelled.
But that was last year. So far this season, the Sox have already picked up a loss in relief, and watched another game soar out of reach because of the bullpen - all in the past two days.
Though the Sox didn't get their first relief loss until May 1 last season, David Aardsma picked up their first in 2008 Friday night. And that wasn't the ugliest moment for the crew up in Canada. With starter Clay Buchholz giving up four runs (three earned) over five innings yesterday, Kyle Snyder proceeded to walk the first two batters he faced in the sixth, the second straight day in which the first reliever walked his first hitter. It all went to pieces from there.
Suddenly the Blue Jays had batted around, scoring six runs off Snyder and Bryan Corey, letting up only when Julian Tavarez got a fly ball to center field to end the inning, the Red Sox eventually falling, 10-2, in front of 35,238 at Rogers Centre. Snyder later said he will be designated for assignment.
"We don't point fingers at anybody," manager Terry Francona said when asked about the troubles with the bullpen. "We win as a team, we lose as a team. When we lose, we all feel like we didn't do the job. They got into our bullpen and did what good offensive clubs do."
That is, hit.
After Snyder walked Aaron Hill and Marco Scutaro, Gregg Zaun executed a sacrifice bunt to third base. Pesky David Eckstein, who had victimized Buchholz for an RBI single in the fourth, hit another single to right field, off Corey, scoring two runs. Then, with two outs, Corey was battered by an RBI double by Alex Rios, an RBI single by Vernon Wells, and a two-run homer by Frank Thomas, who must relish each time Boston comes to town.
"Beginning of the year, I think we're all struggling, especially when you get into games where you're in the bullpen in the fifth or sixth," Francona said. "We're trying to find roles, we're trying to get guys crisp, we're trying to find guys work.
"I know the best thing your guys in the bullpen can do is locate when they come in right off the bat - and when they don't, it can lead to runs."
And it did yesterday. So perhaps lost among the bullpen's foibles was the performance by Buchholz, who finally got to check in as the fifth starter. In his first appearance of the season, Buchholz struck out seven on an afternoon in which he went heavy on his changeup and curveball. Warranted, though, as both were excellent.
"I hadn't thrown a lot of sliders during the spring, and that was a key pitch for me today," Buchholz said. "That was a good first-strike pitch that I threw a lot today. Couple of behind-in-the-count pitches that I threw today. And then the changeup came into play with a couple hitters, and the curveball did, too. Overall I felt like any of the four pitches that I throw, I could have thrown them."
Buchholz said that, as opposed to his results in spring training, he felt more comfortable, and he was better able to escape a couple of jams in yesterday's game. He allowed just one run in the second inning after walking Wells and allowing singles to Thomas and Lyle Overbay to start the inning. He followed those by striking out Hill and Scutaro, both swinging, and getting Zaun to pop to second.
It didn't help, though, when Sean Casey made a two-run error on a ground ball by Zaun in the fourth. E-3 isn't exactly a notation seen a lot around the Red Sox these days, but it helped the Jays put up a three-run inning.
"He's still going to go through bumps," catcher Jason Varitek said of Buchholz. "He kept the game at hand, even though some crazy things happened that inning. He kept us right in that game. That's the key.
"He's got tremendous stuff. I think he'll just continue to get better."
Added Francona, "I thought he showed a lot of good things. The line score will be a little skewed when a play's made or not made. Some of those changeups and a couple of the breaking balls, they're as good as you're going to see."
It won't be easy, though, with Buchholz's next start scheduled to be against the Yankees Friday. Before that time, though, before even the Tigers (despite their 0-5 record) come to town Tuesday, the Red Sox need to get over their troubles with Toronto.
"Obviously we're not clicking on all cylinders quite yet," Varitek said. "They've thrown the ball better than us and they've hit the ball better than us so far. We've got to continue to grind through these things."