The Boston starting rotation has become an obsession of Red Sox Nation this summer. We have gnashed our teeth and wailed at the loss of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield, reached for the antacid watching the attempts of John Smoltz and Brad Penny, crossed our fingers keeping our eyes on Paul Byrd and Junichi Tazawa.
Every fifth day, we debate the status of Josh Beckett. In the eyes of most fans, Jon Lester is the only sure thing. Clay Buchholz is looking surprisingly mature of late, but we've been burned by youthful infatuations before.
Point is, we may be missing the point.
As we sit here with 23 games remaining, it's not about the starters. It's about the relievers. The Red Sox took the field last night with the best bullpen ERA of any team in the American League. The Boston 'pen has been at or near the top of the league's rankings all year.
The Red Sox have won 64 of 68 games when leading after six innings this season. That's a staggering .941 winning percentage. Sox relievers have effectively shortened the game against opponents since the start of the season.
The Sox have done it with depth. They already have four pitchers with at least 50 appearances this season and Takashi Saito has 49. The next time Saito gets into a game, it will be just the second time in club history that five different pitchers have appeared in 50 games in a season and the first since 1991.
Last night's game was a great example of why the bullpen is the key to Boston's postseason hopes. Paul Byrd made his third big-league start of the season. While his line was good enough (five innings, six hits, two earned runs), there were a lot of loud, deep outs coming off the bats of Orioles hitters. Five innings was enough.
Even though the bullpen had a rocky sixth inning, Red Sox relievers gave Boston a chance to win the game. Manny Delcarmen struggled, but Ramon Ramirez got two strikeouts to limit the damage in that sixth inning.
Billy Wagner pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning to keep the game tied. By the time Victor Martinez crushed a pinch-hit, three-run double off the wall in the bottom half of the frame, the bullpen was in line for another win.
In 2002, no one feared the Anaheim Angels' starting rotation. Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz, John Lackey and company were good, but they were backed by a bullpen that was simply great. Brendan Donnelly, Ben Weber, Scott Schoeneweis and Al Levine were a rock-solid bridge to get to lights-out closer Troy Percival. Angels relievers posted a remarkable 2.98 ERA that season, and the team rode those arms to a championship.
This year, the Red Sox have a collection of arms in the 'pen that can do the same thing. Wagner gives them a hard-throwing lefty to join harder-throwing Daniel Bard in those key, late-inning setup situations. You can complain about Jonathan Papelbon's walks and WHIP all you want, but he's one of the game's elite closers and has proven that he can do it in the pressure cooker of October.
There is no disputing that the bullpen has been a strength of this team all season long. Try to remember that while you debate who should start Game 3 of a playoff series, or whether or not Matsuzaka will be able to help this team before it's all said and done.
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