A bullpen lift, and letdown

After rough start, Sox pitch valiantly

Mike Timlin lingers in the dugout after surrendering the winning run to the Rays. Mike Timlin lingers in the dugout after surrendering the winning run to the Rays. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Gerry Fraley
Globe Correspondent / October 12, 2008
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Javier Lopez, a lefthanded specialist for the Red Sox, threw only one pitch last night. He watched the fallout from the fateful toss for more than three hours after.

"The nature of the beast," Lopez said.

The Boston bullpen performed valiantly after Lopez departed, but it could not offset the damage from his lone pitch.

The foursome of Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson, and Jonathan Papelbon combined for 5 2/3 scoreless innings, giving the Sox time to wipe out Tampa Bay's two-run lead. The bullpen streak ended with Mike Timlin's arrival.

Timlin, joining the long list of Red Sox who objected to the strike zone of plate umpire Sam Holbrook, loaded the bases on walks - one intentional - to set up B.J. Upton's winning sacrifice fly down the line in right field. With a 9-8 win in 11 innings, the Rays evened the American League Championship Series after two games.

"They came in looking for a lift," Timlin said. "And they got it."

The Red Sox were left with a case of what-if, as in what if Lopez had done his job against Carl Crawford in the fifth inning?

Manager Terry Francona considered going to the bullpen as early as the third as starter Josh Beckett struggled. With Lopez warming, Francona backed off when Beckett picked off Crawford at first to end the inning.

Francona finally gave in after Evan Longoria's double gave the Rays a 7-6 lead in the fifth. Francona went the conventional route and had Lopez face Crawford, a lefthanded batter. Lopez went inside with a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, but Crawford grounded it through the infield for a run-scoring single.

With that, Lopez departed. One pitch. One inherited runner scored. No outs.

"Coming in as a specialist, the goal is to get an out," Lopez said. "Sometimes, like tonight, the outing is one pitch. The pitch was exactly what I wanted to do. [Crawford] did a great job of getting after it."

By starting the bullpen procession with Lopez, Francona followed the script from the regular season. Lopez held lefthanded batters to a .182 average and allowed 12 of 46 inherited runners to score for a respectable 74 percent prevention rate.

Through the miracle of hindsight, Francona invited more rounds of debate.

Before the series, Francona said he was willing to bring Delcarmen, a righthander, into an inning to face a lefthanded batter. Delcarmen's improved changeup has increased his effectiveness against lefthanded hitters. When Delcarmen did pitch in this game, he retired all three lefthanded batters faced. That could not undo the situation Lopez created.

Delcarmen and Okajima brought order out of chaos, combining for 3 2/3 scoreless innings. When they did it was as significant as what they did.

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon determined the game was on the line in the middle innings and operated accordingly. He used his top late-innings relievers - righthanders Grant Balfour and Chad Bradford and lefthander J.P. Howell - in the fifth through seventh.

Delcarmen and Okajima outperformed them. Tampa Bay's usual late-inning trio combined to surrender three runs in 2 2/3 innings. That included the first earned run against Bradford in his postseason career. His streak ended at 19 2/3 innings.

"We tried to get to a certain point, gave up the runs, and were able to put up zeros," Francona said. "Both teams went at it differently and got the game to the same place in the end."

From the start of spring training, the Red Sox expected big things from Delcarmen. He ran into an early-season pothole when Frank Thomas, then with Toronto, hurt him twice in the span of three days. On April 4, Thomas reached Delcarmen for a two-run double. On April 6, Thomas crushed a grand slam off Delcarmen.

Back to the drawing board.

"We had to work him back from that a little bit," Francona said. "And we needed to remind him at times how good we thought he was."

The repairs eventually took hold, and Delcarmen improved as the season progressed. He had a 1.82 ERA for 30 appearances after the All-Star break, and a 0.59 ERA with only six hits allowed for his final 15 1/3 innings of the regular season.

Delcarmen has four scoreless innings in the playoffs. The next step in his development could be more lefthanded batters in crucial spots.

American League Championship Series
Series Overview
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