Early in the season, Alfredo Aceves was in a bit of an awkward position. The organizational plan was to have him stretched out at Pawtucket in order to provide starting pitching depth we now know to be vital.
As the saying goes, best laid plans of mice and men (and pitching staffs) often go awry.
Because of early injuries in the bullpen and a few cases of complete ineffectiveness (where have you gone, Dennys Reyes?), Aceves was rushed into duty in Boston before he could make one start for the PawSox. The very night he was brought up, April 8, he recorded a hold in a win over the Yankees, the team's first victory of the season.
The next month saw Aceves work some more of the Boston pen, get sent back to Pawtucket to finally make a pair of starts and then get rushed back up I-95 to fortify the relief corps once again. He responded on that first day back by allowing one run on three hits in 4 2/3 innings, sparing the rest of the pen after a rough Tim Wakefield start.
At one point during that period of time, Aceves was asked if he was frustrated by the lack of clarity with his role. Was he going to be a starter? Was he a major league mop-up man? Would he stay in one place for more than two weeks at a time? Alfredo, does this bother you?
"I'm a pitcher. That's what I do," he blurted out.
It was said in a serious way and with a serious face, prompting some on hand to wonder if Aceves was actually upset with the back-and-forths, the up-and-downs, and he was relaying that emotion through his tone. In fact, he was simply delivering the most honest answer he could, and nearly three months later the Red Sox are cherishing the fact that that's what Aceves is. A pitcher. And a darn good one.
Boston already had an idea of this after watching Aceves go 15-1 in three seasons primarily as a reliever for the Yankees. But when the organization mapped out its plan to have Aceves as its sixth or seventh starter, with the possibility that he could help out in the bullpen, it likely had no clue how valuable he would become.
After tossing three hitless innings to pick up the win in the 16-inning triumph in Tampa Bay on Sunday, Aceves' career record stood at 19-2. Win-loss records are not always great indicators of a pitcher's effectiveness, but this one seems rather apt for one of the more consistent performers in the Boston bullpen, who has also proven to be incredibly clutch.
The 28-year-old right-hander, signed as a free agent in February for a relative pittance, has now made five straight relief appearances of 2 1/3 innings or more, allowing just one earned run in that span. The effort against the Rays pushed his scoreless streak to 10 1/3 innings. Opponents have two measly hits in that span, both of them singles.
While Aceves will always remain a candidate to fill in as a starter, he has carved out a unique niche in the pen. When rested, Terry Francona can turn to him on those days when Andrew Miller can't get through the third inning, as was the case last Friday, or when nobody scores until well past midnight, like on Sunday night. Or, if others are wasted, Francona has no hesitation about putting in Aceves to get three outs late in the ballgame.
Many figured Aceves would get the last start before the All-Star break in place of the injured Jon Lester. The organization instead turned to Kyle Weiland, in part because of how well Weiland has thrown at Pawtucket, but also for reasons that have been far more important for the success of this ballclub.
"The way our bullpen is situated, [Aceves] gives us such a luxury of pitching short, pitching long," Francona said at the time.
In Weiland's major league debut, Aceves made Francona look like a genius, inheriting a messy situation when Weiland was ejected from the game with two on and no outs in the fifth and proceeding to retire nine straight Orioles and protect a one-run lead. He got the win in that one, too.
Aceves' nickname is "Ace." It's more a play on his last name than a characterization of his role on the staff. Such terms are reserved for guys like Lester and Josh Beckett. However, the way the season has unfolded has proven that Aceves has just about as much value to the team as those other guys with All-Star credentials and big paychecks. Simply put, he's a pitcher.