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New York's 'pen now much mightier

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  August 8, 2009 08:27 AM

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NEW YORK -- Two months ago, had these same teams played a similar game, Jason Varitek never would have made the walk across the clubhouse, as he did this morning, virtually his entire body wrapped in ice. Varitek never would have risen from his seat, the clock on the clubhouse wall reading precisely 1:02 a.m., to console a young man who had just surrendered a game-winning home run in the 15th inning of a 2-0 loss.

Back then, after all, the Red Sox would have won this game because the New York Yankees simply did not have the bullpen to match up with Boston’s vaunted relief corps.

But the Yankees do now.

"I just don’t want him to hang his head,’’ Varitek said later of Junichi Tazawa, the 23-year-old who made his major league debut as the Red Sox’ sixth and final reliever in last night’s draining loss to the Yankees. "His stuff’s too good and he’s too good for that to happen."

So Varitek ambled over to a seemingly catatonic Tazawa, who sat in a chair before his locker in a spacious and largely vacant clubhouse at the new Yankee Stadium. The catcher crouched and looked Tazawa squarely in the eyes, the young man nodding as the 37-year-old captain of the Red Sox spoke. And with his left arm wrapped so thoroughly in ice and an ace bandage that he might as well have been wearing a catcher’s mitt, Varitek gave Tazawa a soft, reassuring tap on the head.

In the end, the Red Sox now trail the Yankees by 4½ games with 55 games remaining on the Boston schedule entering today -- the Yankees have 54 games left -- and any Boston advantage in this year’s matchup seems to have washed away. That 8-0 record suddenly does not seem to mean much anymore. Entering this season, the one most glaring advantage the Red Sox had over the Yankees was their pitching, specifically in the bullpen, where Boston seemed to have as many capable arms as New York had questions. Now here we are, more than four months later, and the Yankees have sufficiently caught up that they could match the Red Sox, pitch for pitch, through 14 innings of a game that stayed scoreless.

Last night, after seven scoreless innings from Josh Beckett and before the debut Tazawa, Red Sox relievers pitched six scoreless innings and allowed one hit -- an infield single by Alex Rodriguez against Daniel Bard in the bottom of the ninth. The Red Sox still lost. The biggest reason was that the once-suspect Yankees bullpen neutralized Red Sox relievers (and then some) by finishing the night with 7 1/3 scoreless innings, meaning that the Yankees bullpen even nosed out Beckett, the ace of the Boston staff.

For every pitched the Red Sox send to the mound now, the Yankees seem to have an answer.

"It was a tough night offensively," conceded Sox manager Terry Francona. "It was a tough night for them, too."

Today, as we take stock of the Red Sox and Yankees as they effectively enter the final third of the baseball season, there is an important observation to make: the Red Sox don’t have any real advantages anymore. Through June 11, when these teams played their last game before the start of this series, Red Sox relievers had a dominating 2.88 ERA that made them the most formidable group in baseball; the Yankees, by contrast, had a bullpen ERA of 4.69. Head-to-head, Boston relievers had outpitched their New York counterparts by almost two runs per game -- a 3-0 record and 3.04 ERA for the Sox, an 0-2 record and 5.10 ERA for the Yanks -- giving the Sox an enormous edge in any reasonably competitive game entering the final three innings.

But now, as we enter what amount to the final three innings of this season, the numbers tell a different story. Since June 11, Yankees relievers are 11-4 with a 3.55 ERA and 158 strikeouts in 154 2/3 innings. Opponents are batting .212 against them. Meanwhile, Red Sox relievers are 8-7 with a 3.80 ERA while holding opponents to a batting average of .249 -- impressive statistics, to be sure, but ones that no longer provide the Sox the kind of edge they need to defeat a Yankees club capable of matching Boston in every other area, too.

Entering this season, of course, much was made of Boston’s pitching depth and of the Sox' productive player development system, particularly as it pertained to New York. As it turned out, things have broken far better for the Yankees than anyone ever could have imagined. While righthander Phil Hughes has taken to the Yankees bullpen the way that Jonathan Papelbon did for the Sox in 2005 -- Hughes has a 1.47 ERA as a reliever -- Alfredo Aceves has turned into New York’s version of Hideki Okajima. Aceves last night pitched three innings, more than any other reliever in this game, while strikeout out three and allowing just one hit. During that same length of time, from the 10th through the 12th, the Red Sox burned three relievers just to keep up.

Ultimately, that led to the major league debut of Tazawa, who might as well have spent last summer pitching in the Boston Park League. One minute Tazawa is pitching for a semipro outfit in Japan, the next he’s facing A-Rod with two outs and a man on first in the bottom of the 15th inning of a scoreless game. The last Red Sox pitcher to make that kind of meteoric ascension was probably Craig Hansen, who went from the 2005 draft to the big leagues in roughly two months. Incredibly, that Red Sox team might have been more desperate than this one.

Today, thanks to their second extra-long affair in four days, the Boston bullpen looks cooked again thanks to another exhaustive effort gone fruitless. The worst part is that the Sox may need their relievers more than the Yankees do. While Boston sends Clay Buchholz to the mound, New York answers with lefty CC Sabathia, the 6-foot-7 ox who has pitched more innings than any starter in baseball since the start of the 2007 season. In the wake of last night’s marathon, the Yankees can lean on Sabathia heavily today to protect a relief corps that could probably use a rest.

Still, ask yourself this:

Even if Sabathia leaves the game early, will the Red Sox have the advantage over these Yankees that Boston once did?

Tony's Top 5

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The final chapter on Teixeira and How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone Jan. 7, 2009 and July 17, 2009. Some actual reporting – an obsession with Mark Teixeira and the art of pitching.
For 2011 Red Sox, there was plenty of blame to go around Oct. 1, 2011. The disgraceful collapse of the Red Sox stoked the fire in all of us.
Behind Garnett and James, Celtics and Heat are digging in June 4, 2012. Improbably, the Celtics pushed the Heat to the limit.
Thrill is back for Patriots Jan. 30, 2012. Another Super Bowl has even Bill Belichick musing.
You’ve got to believe June 15, 2011. On the morning of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, we all had reason to believe.
Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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