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No relief in sight for Sox

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  July 6, 2010 12:46 PM

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If this Red Sox team has a potentially dooming defect -- what general manager Theo Epstein famously referred to as a "fatal flaw" in 2004 -- it's warming up in the bullpen.

Outside of Jonathan Papelbon, whose hiccups have been greatly exaggerated by the Nation, and Daily Daniel Bard, relief has been hard to come by for the Red Sox. It was hard to watch last night's 6-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays and not notice the juxtaposition between the pens of the two American League East combatants.

The Rays relievers saved the game for them after noted Red Sox killer Matt Garza was bludgeoned for four runs and seven hits in three innings. An Eric Patterson solo homer was all Tampa Bay's bullpen surrendered the rest of the way, and the pivotal sequence in the game was when the Sox loaded the bases with one out in the seventh inning and Grant Balfour and Randy Choate notched back-to-back strikeouts to keep the game tied. The next half-inning, the Rays went ahead against Ramon Ramirez and then Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano shut it down for the Maddon Men, who reclaimed second place in the AL East.

With 25 shopping days left until Major League Baseball's trade deadline it is apparent what Epstein must add to this injury-depleted, overachieving team -- a few good arms to make the 'pen mightier and prevent manager Terry Francona from falling on the sword.

While the brunt of the blame for last night's loss belongs to "Roll of the" Dasuike Matsuzaka, a pitcher whose advanced billing has turned out to be as chimerical as the gyroball, the bullpen is to blame too.

Few things give a manager more second thoughts or get him second-guessed more than a faulty bullpen.

There was a lot of irritation and frustration streaming through Twitter and the blogosphere last night over Francona not giving the maddening Matsuzaka, who couldn't protect a 5-1 lead, the hook sooner. But with the current state of disarray of the Sox bullpen can you really blame him? It's not a coincidence that the last two games Sox starters John Lackey and Matsuzaka have been allowed to throw 117 and 112 pitches, respectively.

Plus, with rookie lefthander Felix Doubront taking the mound tonight at the Trop, Francona couldn't afford to empty what's left of his beleaguered bullpen.

We all know what happens when a manager starts to lose faith in his bullpen, when he believes a tiring or scuffling starter gives him just as good a chance as his flammable fleet of relievers, when tapping your forearm feels like shooting yourself in the foot. Like the games he reluctantly puts his penman into it usually doesn't end well for the team. Just ask a nice Southern gentleman who used to manage the Sox in 2003.

If this were a grade school report card, the Sox would get a not-satisfactory for penmanship so far. The Boston bullpen ranks 28th among the 30 MLB outfits in earned run average at 4.84 (Boston starters sport a 4.08 ERA). Only Milwaukee and Arizona, which recently ousted both its manager and its GM, rank worse. The Rays bullpen is third in baseball at 3.13.

Red Sox relievers are tied for the league lead in home runs allowed with the Diamondbacks (36) and their 12 blown saves are tied for third in baseball with the woebegone Baltimore Orioles.

The Sox' bullpen ranking would be their lowest since 2005, when they were 29th in ERA (5.17) and were also second to last in opponents batting average (.285). In the fateful 2003 campaign, the carmine hose finished 28th in relievers' ERA (4.87).

In both of the team's World Series championship seasons they had bullpen ERAs under 4.00. In 2007, the Sox had the second-best bullpen ERA in all of baseball (3.10) and the best batting average against (.226).

Fixing a bullpen on the fly is about as difficult as making a souffle from scratch. You can have all the right ingredients and follow your plan perfectly, but somehow the mix just doesn't come out looking right. Relievers are like stocks, their performance is both unpredictable and volatile (see: Hideki Okajima and Ramon Ramirez) and if you could find a way to accurately predict it all the time you would be awash in riches. Last season with a similar crew, the Sox were eighth in bullpen ERA at 3.80.

Perhaps, there are internal solutions with pitching prospect Michael Bowden, a starter at Pawtucket, and hard-throwing Portland reliever Jason Rice.

It's caveat emptor -- sometimes caveat empty -- if you try to obtain help from outside. Epstein has tried to bolster bullpens mid-season before with mixed results.

In 2003, he dealt for the Scotts -- Sauberbeck and Williamson. Both posted ERAs above 6.00. Williamson pitched well in the playoffs, going 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA and three saves, but by that time Grady Little had been traumatized. In 2005, Epstein nabbed knuckle-scrapping submariner Chad Bradford, and he went a respectable 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA.

The most memorable of Epstein's relief pitcher pickups was Eric Gagne in 2007. Gagne, who came from Texas with a 2.16 ERA and 16 saves, turned out to be a colossal bust in Boston, compiling a 6.75 ERA and imploding in the playoffs. Last season, Epstein added Billy Wagner in a post-deadline, waiver trade and the flamethrowing lefty was terrific, posting a 1.98 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.

Perhaps, the best news for the Sox is that the boys in the Bronx aren't too bullish on their bullpen right now. Closer nonpareil Mariano Rivera has been his usual dominant self, but getting to Mo has been a problem for the Pinstripes. Converted reliever/starter/reliever Joba Chamberlain has been more like Craig Hansen than Daniel Bard, and David Robertson still has an ERA hovering near 6.00, despite a June in which he had a 1.00 ERA.

Which teams can find the mightiest 'pens might just tell the tale of the AL East.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news


...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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