FORT MYERS, Fla. — Entering Wednesday, the last four Grapefruit League wins that the Red Sox had accumulated featured shutdown efforts by the bullpen. In 23 1/3 innings during that span, the relievers in camp had allowed exactly one earned run, and it came on a solo home run by Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera.
That's good for a 0.39 ERA. There have been only 12 hits surrendered in the stretch. Included in that run have been several solid outings by those who are still fighting for a spot on the Opening Day roster, adding intrigue to the few remaining battles in camp.
"We'll have an interesting last week, that's for sure," Terry Francona said Tuesday morning in Lakeland. "There's been some really good things happening."
The competition figures to still involve about seven or eight pitchers for one, two or three spots, although others may still be on the radar with the solid springs they have had. Incumbent lefty Hideki Okajima is attempting to fend off challenges from fellow southpaws Rich Hill, Andrew Miller, Dennys Reyes and Randy Williams. Promising prospect Felix Doubront, who has been dealing with an elbow issue, remains a candidate, although he will continue to serve as a starter at Triple-A Pawtucket, if healthy.
Okajima is the only one on the 40-man roster aside from Doubront, so the others could possibly wind up as protection at the minor league level. There is still some thought that Miller may eventually be stretched out in order to serve as minor league depth for the starting rotation.
None have disappointed. After a rocky debut, Okajima has tossed four scoreless innings. Reyes is unscored upon in his four frames. Miller has exhibited his lights-out stuff from time to time. Williams has fanned seven in 5 2/3 innings. Perhaps the best of the bunch in terms of his sheer consistency has been Hill, the Milton, Mass., native who has thrived after dropping his arm slot to the side this offseason.
Hill, who has yielded three hits in seven scoreless, got his feet wet with a late-season audition for the Red Sox last year. The one-time starter for the Chicago Cubs is focused on being part of the long haul this time around.
"It's very important to make the team out of camp," Hills said. "It's something that would be very important in my professional career. It's something I want to be a part of, is this team right from the start. That's where I would want to be is breaking camp with the team. Nothing less."
Hill added that this is the most confident he has been in two years after dealing with some health issues in 2008 and 2009. His altered delivery could make him even tougher against left-handed hitters, who have produced just a .216 mark against Hill in his career.
Of course, someone in Hill's position may be viewed as an insurance policy for the team. The club can possibly keep him at Pawtucket until reinforcements are needed, as they always are. Francona knows that while such a situation may not be ideal for every pitcher involved, it serves the organization extremely well as it builds up critical depth.
"Regardless of what our roster ends up being at the end of spring training, as an organization I think it's still good news," Francona said. "We're going to have to give a couple of guys news they don't want to hear, but I think it bodes well for the organization."
Competition on the right-handed side of things involves Scott Atchison, Matt Albers, Alfredo Aceves and possibly a few others like Matt Fox, or even Tim Wakefield if the club is still determining whether his skill set fits the team's plans in 2011. Michael Bowden, who was converted from a starter to a reliever last season to help out the big club and could serve in both roles in 2011, has also impressed in his seven innings of work.
Francona called Albers' work "tremendous" and has raved about Atchison's methodical, effective style all spring. Aceves has turned heads with a handful of quality performances, including two as a starter, which may wind up being his role due to the limited depth beyond the starting five.
Albers was the one who served up the home run to Cabrera, but otherwise his work this spring has made him stand out. The former Baltimore Oriole has allowed two runs in 7 2/3 innings while striking out eight and walking none.
Although he is on the 40-man roster and out of options, giving him a tad more security, Albers has sensed the solid work being done by his colleagues and knows nothing is a guarantee.
"Definitely there's a lot of talent here, especially guys going for those last few spots," Albers said. "There's definitely a lot of guys deserving of it. Like I said, you don't want to think about it too much. It's one of those things, I feel like if I do everything I can, I'll have a pretty good chance. It's kind of out of my hands."
Atchison, who emerged as a trustworthy member of a struggling bullpen last year, still has options. He may throw some innings for the PawSox at some point in time, but Francona's esteem for the right-hander might make his return trip a quick one.
"Young pitchers should watch him," Francona said of Atchison after a recent outing. "Just the way … he doesn't blow you away with his stuff. But he hits his spots, he throws strikes, he works quick. He does everything he's supposed to."
Such praise is not often met with a demotion to the minors, but with the way the competition is heating up, there are no sure things beyond the hard-throwing trio at the back end of the bullpen and veteran righty Dan Wheeler.
In order to exemplify how difficult the decisions will be, consider the combined numbers of the six pitchers who were non-roster invitees and are still in camp (Fox, Hill, Miller, Reyes, Williams and Brandon Duckworth): 3-0, 2.31 ERA, 34 strikeouts in 35 innings.
Although guys like Hill, and anyone else for that matter, would want to make the club on Opening Day, the fact that the options are aplenty is a positive one, to say the least.
"We'll try to make good decisions not only for Opening Day but for the organization," Francona said. "It'll be an interesting week because I can't sit here and say that there's one guy that doesn't deserve to be on the ballclub. They've all done pretty well."