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On baseball

Group effort helped save a long day

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
June 23, 2008

Jim Leyland said it best back in spring training.

"You're not going to win a pennant unless you have a good bullpen," said the Tigers manager. "Simple as that."

It's simple to say, but not so simple to put together a solid, reliable corps of relievers.

Which is why the Red Sox had one of those bittersweet days at the ballpark yesterday.

Jonathan Papelbon extended the game four innings when he blew a 3-2 Red Sox lead in the ninth. And thanks to a base-running blunder by the Cardinals, who had a go-ahead run gunned down at the plate in the top of the 13th, the Red Sox won it, 5-3, in the bottom of the inning on Kevin Youkilis's two-run walkoff home run.

Boston's bullpen is normally not this taxed, but when Daisuke Matsuzaka lasted only one-plus innings Saturday, it was clear it would be a long weekend for the relievers.

Which is why relievers were packing a lot of ice after the game. Though teammates say they are still "shocked" when Papelbon blows a save, it's happened four times this season, one more than all of last season.

Reason for concern? Well, it all depends on how you look at it. When you couple Papelbon's blown saves and the struggles of set-up man Hideki Okajima, the concerns are clear. On the positive side, young righthanders Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen provided clutch performances yesterday.

Okajima didn't allow a run in 1 2/3 innings and ultimately, that's all that matters. However, he allowed four hits and a walk to the 10 batters he faced. He's allowed 11 hits and five runs in his last 5 1/3 innings spanning six games. He is no longer the lights-out setup man he was a year ago.

The Sox put Mike Timlin on the disabled list with tendinitis in his knee Saturday, though the veteran righthander has struggled mightily this season - 17 earned runs and 29 hits in 21 2/3 innings.

Bullpens are tough to manage. They're good one year, not so good the next. You can pack your bullpen with veterans the way Milwaukee did and sometimes it doesn't work out. You can go with kids and sooner or later you'll see their inexperience. So the Red Sox, who assembled a very good bullpen last year, are trying to expand the roles of their young pitchers while hoping Papelbon and Okajima can return to their form of 2007.

While the Red Sox might be the deepest team in baseball, they do not have an endless well of relievers. Trading for bullpen help is tricky as the Sox found out with Eric Gagné last season. Relievers who normally become available are from teams who have not pitched in pressure situations during the season. Sometimes thrusting them into a pressure-packed situation can bring disastrous results. Therefore building the confidence of your young guns is the best way to go.

David Aardsma, who has a strong arm and was hitting 99 miles per hour the other night, could be the one to pick up the slack, though the Sox prefer to use him when the team is trailing. In his last six games, he's thrown 6 1/3 scoreless innings and he fanned six straight over two appearances against the Cardinals.

Hansen entered yesterday's game with a 5.49 ERA, but he had that signature slider working and the Cardinals found him unhittable.

Hansen entered the game in the 11th with two outs and the bases loaded. Not much room for error, but he struck out Ryan Ludwick on a nasty slider. He also mowed down the Cardinals in the 12th, including two more strikeouts, and got Yadier Molina to pop out leading off the 13th before he was lifted.

"He did great," said manager Terry Francona. "I think I'm stating the obvious when I'm saying we had eight innings out of our bullpen [Saturday]. This isn't what you draw up and Hans really did a good job. Even going out and getting [Ludwick]. That's a lot to ask."

Hansen shrugged off the importance of his outing saying, "It was tied up and it's basically my job to get that out. The goal is to get our guys out there swinging the bats, which we did, and that's how we won it. You can't think about how much the bullpen has been working. You just have to get out there and get the job done. No excuses. We want to win the game."

Delcarmen replaced Jon Lester in the eighth with one out and one on. He struck out Troy Glaus looking and Nick Stavinoha (who was playing his first game in the majors) swinging to leave things at 2-1 Cardinals.

The Sox then rallied in the bottom to take the lead. Papelbon then took over and struck out Rick Ankiel on a foul tip before Molina took a called third strike. But Papelbon walked pinch hitter Chris Duncan and pinch hitter Adam Kennedy stroked a double over Coco Crisp's head in center to score Duncan.

Papelbon threw a splitter, and whether it was a good pitch or bad pitch selection, it was a pitch he keeps getting hurt on in key situations.

Papelbon, who didn't speak after the game, has talked in the past about following through on the pitch to get the best possible movement. The 0-and-2 pitch Kennedy hit lingered too long in the strike zone. It can be argued Crisp got a bad jump or took a bad route to the ball. Fact is, Papelbon was one strike away from sealing the victory.

The Sox were fortunate to survive the next four innings, win the game, and avoid what would have been an embarrassing sweep by the Cardinals.

Other teams would love to have problems like Papelbon and Okajima, but the fact is Papelbon is now 21 out of 25 in save opportunities, with all of the blown saves coming in his last 18 appearances.

Nothing to be alarmed about, but something to keep an eye on.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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