That’s saying a lot. But look at Boston’s top seven relievers:
Daniel Bard (3.40 ERA)
Manny Delcarmen (3.33)
Hideki Okajima (3.29)
Ramon Ramirez (2.88)
Takashi Saito (2.59)
Jonathan Papelbon (1.84)
Billy Wagner (0.00)
From top to bottom, it’s tough to find a better collection of talent in a bullpen. There are three major league-proven closers (Papelbon, Wagner and Saito), a flamethrowing rookie with the potential to be a first-rate closer (Bard), a left-hander with a 2.67 career ERA in 185 2/3 innings (Okajima), a right-hander who’s allowed only 37 of 130 inherited runners to score in 216 career innings (Ramirez) and a 27-year-old right-hander who’s held opposing hitters to a .240 batting average since he made his major league debut in 2005 (Delcarmen).
Many teams have had great relievers — including Hall of Famers and perennial All-Stars. Think Hoyt Wilhelm. Rollie Fingers. Goose Gossage. Bruce Sutter. Mariano Rivera.
But many teams also have had their fair share of holes in the bullpen — journeymen along for the ride, mop-up men who couldn’t dent silly putty, Four-A arms hanging onto the dream, warm bodies just filling a roster spot and collecting a paycheck.
The only relief such pitchers can provide is for the other team. When they start warming up, the other bullpen picks up the phone and calls down to the dugout to alert the hitters to start licking their chops. When such pitchers enter the game with a lead, their managers, teammates and fans pray they can hold it. When everyone isn’t praying, they are averting their eyes from disaster.
It is like patching up a crack in a dam with duct tape. The flood is only a matter of time.
The Red Sox don’t need FEMA on speed dial nor do they need an extra supply of sand bags. These days, if their starting pitcher can get through six innings with a lead, Boston stands as good a chance of winning as the house in Las Vegas.
Need to get a left-handed hitter out to protect a one-run lead with two outs and runners on second and third in the bottom of the seventh inning? No problem.
Looking to close the door on a bases-load rally with none out in the bottom of the eighth? Dial up a six-out save.
Want a double-play groundball to crush an opponent’s will? You’ve come to right place.
Back in the day, there was no need for setup men or bridge workers because one guy would get a three-inning save. That doesn’t happen nowadays. The game has evolved. There is a specialist for every situation. And relievers are more important than they’ve ever been.
Theo Epstein and company understand this concept as well as anyone, and have planned accordingly. The bullpen may have been inconsistent and a cause for concern in 2008, but not this year. Since Wagner joined the staff, the Red Sox have two arms for every late-inning situation. And each of them has shown he is capable of getting the job done. Bard is getting his first taste of a pennant race. However, everyone else has experience in a hunt for October.
As long as the Red Sox hold off the Rangers and Rays to win the AL wild card, this team is built to win everything. Yes, there might be some questions with the offense and starting pitching, but if the hitters and starters can answer them, there aren’t a whole lot of weak links in the bullpen.
That’s gotta be some relief.