Fate of 2010 Red Sox Season Could Rest in Bullpen’s Hands

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Fate of 2010 Red Sox Season Could Rest in Bullpen's Hands Jonathan Papelbon handed the ball to manager Terry Francona and sauntered off the Fenway Park mound, leaving behind him a horrifying blown save in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.

That scene created perhaps the most lasting image of the 2009 Red Sox season, which ended moments later. With the way the Red Sox have restructured themselves, potentially putting even more pressure on their bullpen, it’s a scene they hope to avoid in 2010.

With emphasis placed on starting pitching and defense, chances are the Red Sox will be involved in a boatload of close contests this year. The onus for preserving one- and two-run leads will fall on a bullpen which struggled mightily down the stretch last season, and saw its leader flame out in shocking fashion.

It’s no surprise that Papelbon welcomes the challenge.

"I think I’m definitely one that’s going to put more pressure on myself than any fan or media or any coach," Papelbon said recently from Fort Myers when asked about the meltdown. "I’m pretty honest with myself, and I’m not going to shy away from anything."

Overall, the Red Sox’ bullpen was solid in 2009, ranking second in the American League with a 3.80 ERA. However, a closer inspection of the numbers yields proof that it needed some support, at least down the stretch.

Although Papelbon actually improved in several categories following the All-Star break, few of his bullpen-mates did. Potential closer-in-waiting Daniel Bard saw a 2.55 ERA in the first half of the season balloon to 4.74 after the break. Manny Delcarmen’s numbers went from 2.41 to 7.27. Hideki Okajima’s WHIP rose from 1.08 to 1.57. And Ramon Ramirez saw his ERA rise each month of the season and his WHIP soar to a glaring 1.65 in the second half.

Last season's development begged for reinforcements this winter, just in case, and general manager Theo Epstein stuck with his ever-ready plan to fill potential gaps in the bullpen with bargain-bin pitchers who have a chance to be successful.

One, Boof Bonser, was once a highly touted starter in the San Francisco Giants organization and won 11 of his first 18 decisions as a member of the Minnesota Twins before arm trouble set him off track. 

Another, Scott Atchison, starred in Japan the last two years and brings with him a deceptive delivery Epstein seems to like.

A third option is Ramon A. Ramirez, who has allowed just 25 hits in 39 1/3 innings as a major leaguer.

Jorge Sosa was signed to a minor league deal in January, and the Red Sox are hopeful he has some of what made him a 13-3 pitcher with Atlanta in 2005.

"It’s the most volatile [area of the team] year to year," Epstein said of the bullpen. "We might find someone out of a group like that who might be as good or better than a reliever you might have to go out and spend three or four million on."

Epstein figures to group one or two of these guys – or perhaps Michael Bowden, Joe Nelson or Brian Shouse – with Papelbon, Bard, Okajima, Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez. There is also the prospect of Tim Wakefield or another member of a crowded rotation taking a spot when the team heads north.

While those decisions will be made later this month, the key may be getting Delcarmen healthy again. Beleaguered by a sore shoulder, the Hyde Park native went south over the last few months of 2009 and was left off the postseason roster after a car accident left him even more banged up.

His decline robbed the bullpen of what was a force in 2007 and 2008 and one of the more called-upon options for Francona. Delcarmen, 28, is also eyeing a rebirth.

"I feel 100 times better than I did last year toward the end," he said recently after a workout in Florida. "It’s just good that I feel normal and ready to go."

Ready to go. He and his mates in the bullpen will need to be early and often this season. The fortunes of the 2010 Red Sox, now saturated with front-of-the-rotation studs and Gold Glovers, may depend upon it.

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