When Boof Bonser and Joe Nelson combined to give up eight runs in one inning of relief last week in Cleveland, and then Daniel Bard blew a save one night later, the Red Sox bullpen did not appear to be at its best.
Since then, a unit that has regained its closer and continues to jell has been spectacular, taking the club to the finish line repeatedly throughout a 4-1 homestand.
With two more scoreless innings Wednesday night spread between Bard, Ramon Ramirez and Jonathan Papelbon, the bullpen had allowed just one run in 15 innings since the club returned home. Throw in reliever Scott Atchison’s clutch three-inning performance (two runs on two hits) in an emergency start for the injured Daisuke Matsuzaka on Saturday and collectively you have a unit that has answered the bell after some recent struggles.
“One by one I feel like we just pick each other up and we feel like we’re going to have a special year,” said Manny Delcarmen, who has returned from some back woes to toss 3 2/3 scoreless innings over his last three outings. “As of late we’ve been doing that.”
That run continued in relief of Jon Lester during Wednesday’s 6-2 win over Arizona, with each guy that emerged from the bullpen telling a different tale of success.
After Lester threw seven strong innings, Bard — who entered the night tied for the American League lead with 32 appearances — retired the side without incident in the eighth.
Although Bard showed bit of a drop-off in his results late last season, the club remains confident that it will not overwork him, part of a process that involves incredible restraint.
“We kinda ran into this with [Hideki Okajima] a few years ago,” Sox manager Terry Francona said of the urge to use Bard often. “You get a guy who’s getting them out and you want to run them out there every night.
“That’s why we get that chart and we keep an eye on things, how much they’re up and down, because we don’t want to take a good thing and turn it into something where he’s on fumes in August. That’s not a good way to manage.”
The second reliever Wednesday, Ramirez, was seemingly running on fumes last August. His ERA and opponents’ batting averaged increased each month from April to August, and when he struggled out of the gate in 2010, there were some concerns.
But by giving Ramirez shorter bursts rather than extended outings, his results have taken a turn for the better. In April, when four of Ramirez’s 10 outings lasted longer than an inning, he was 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA.
In May and June combined, the 28-year-old Ramirez has thrown more than one inning just twice, posting shrinking ERAs of 4.82 and 2.70, respectively.
Although he allowed two to reach when he entered in the ninth against the Diamondbacks, Ramirez got the next two outs to bring Boston to within one of another win.
That last out, of course, belonged to Papelbon, who has seen a stint on the bereavement list and a notable dearth of save opportunities limit his work, presenting the need for an altogether different approach from the ones taken with Bard and Ramirez.
Although the temptation may be there to run Papelbon out in non-save situations just to increase his workload, logic says to do otherwise. You may never again get a chance for such a respite.
“I think we’ll use it to our advantage,” Francona said of Papelbon’s recent down time. “We always lean on the good pitchers a lot, so you can take the rest when you get it…Sometimes the rest, whether built in or not, we use it to our advantage.”
Papelbon, rested and ready, got the final three outs in Tuesday’s win and needed just four pitches to nail down his 15th save Wednesday.
Of course, a bullpen goes only so far as its starting rotation will take it, and Red Sox starters have gone at least six innings in 15 of their last 17 games. The string of quality starts have allowed a relief corps to find its footing, even if each has gone about it a bit differently.
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