First pitch: Red Sox bullpen overhauled ... again


First pitch: Red Sox bullpen overhauled ... again

Overhauling bullpens from one season to the next is commonplace in baseball. By definition, relievers are effective one year and not so the next, creating an annual state of flux. The overachieving middle man one year turns back into a under-performing journeyman the following season.

But this year, the Red Sox are making their adjustments in-season, time and time again, and by the looks of things, are about to begin their third iteration of relievers.

It began in the final week of spring training when the team lost closer Andrew Bailey to a thumb injury, forcing a shuffle that saw Alfredo Aceves made into the team's ad-hoc closer.

And now, two-thirds of the way into the schedule, just as the playoff race is taking shape, the Sox are being forced into doing it again.

In the last few weeks alone, two relief mainstays have been taken out of the equation: Scott Atchison, sidelined last month with forearm soreness, now likely needs season-ending Tommy John surgery; and Matt Albers was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks Tuesday in
exchange for Craig Breslow.

That shuffle has the Red Sox adjusting a critical part of their team with slightly more than one third of the schedule remaining. But the team has options with which to make its adjustments.

Breslow gives the Sox, for the time being at least, a third lefty in the bullpen, joining Andrew Miller and Franklin Morales. As general manager Ben Chernigton noted Tuesday: "We felt like,
earlier in the year when we had three lefties (Morales, Miller and Rich Hill) was when our pen was really rolling the best and it will give Bobby a chance to match-up and use all three guys.
It certainly gives Bobby some flexibility for the rest of the year if he needs to use Morales as a starter. So hopefully, there are a couple of benefits.''

The Sox have three series and nine games remaining with the lefty-leaning New York Yankees and having Breslow to come into the game in the seventh or eighth inning to face Robinson Cano or Raul Ibanez, or to turn switch-hitters Mark Teixeira or Nick Swisher around to the
right side could prove valuable.

And with Breslow and Miller already in the pen, the Sox could spring Franklin Morales into a spot starter's role, giving them the potential to throw a lefty in all three games, joining Jon Lester and Felix Doubront, each of whom beat the Yankees last weekend.

The loss of Albers and Atchison can be covered soon enough. Bailey is another half-dozen rehab appearances from returning to the major league roster.

Assuming the Sox eventually have Bailey reclaim the closer's role, that frees Aceves to shift into the set-up spot, more than making up for the innings that will be lost because of the trade of Albers and the injury to Atchison.

Aceves, remember, thrived in such a role last season and his durability makes him an invaluable weapon. Because Aceves prefers as much work as possible -- Valentine has already used him to finish 19 non-save situations -- he can contribute multiple-inning stints.

Aceves can team with Vicente Padilla to form a formidable righthanded-duo for the seventh and eighth innings, while the three lefties -- a fourth could be on the way as Rich Hill rebounds from his own forearm issues -- give Valentine plenty of late-inning matchup possibilities.

Junichi Tazawa has emerged, too, as an effective middle weapon. Since rejoining the team July 15, Tazawa has allowed just two runs over his last nine innings of work, while averaging a strikeout per inning.

Finally, waiting in the wings is Daniel Bard, who could yet have an impact on the final two months if he can continue to harness his control. In Bard's last five outings, covering five innings, he's walked just two.

Following a rocky first three weeks of the season, the Red Sox bullpen has sported a 2.32 ERA, best in the major leagues.

This time around, Valentine won't have a three-week grace period as he evaluates and assigns roles. But he's much more familiar with his personnel by now, which should speed up the process.

McAdam: World Series win could clear path to Cooperstown for Epstein or Francona


McAdam: World Series win could clear path to Cooperstown for Epstein or Francona

Sometime over the next 10 or so days, either the Chicago Cubs or Cleveland Indians will win the 2016 World Series.

Naturally, that will mean one of baseball's two longest-suffering franchises will end their championship drought. Either the Cubs will win their first title since 1908, or the Indians will win for the first time since 1948.

That alone should make for an epic World Series.

But there's another bit of history at stake, too - one of legacies.

In addition to the great discomfort felt by Red Sox ownership -- which fired the manager of one participating team and was seemingly happy to hold the door open for the exit of an executive now running the other - it will also almost certainly result, eventually, in either Terry Francona or Theo Epstein being enshrined into the Hall of Fame.

Epstein would go down as the architect who helped two star-crossed franchises win titles - the Red Sox in 2004, and the Cubs this fall.

The Red Sox went 86 years between championships; the Cubs would be ending a run of futility that stretched across 108 seasons.

That would provide Epstein with an unmatched resume when it comes to degree of difficulty. It's one thing to win it all; it's another altogether to do so with the Sox and Cubs, two clubs, until Epstein's arrival, linked in ignominy.

Epstein could become only the fourth GM in modern history win a World Series in both leagues. Frank Cashen (Orioles and Mets); John Schuerholz (Royals and Braves) and Pat Gillick (Blue Jays and Phillies).

He would also join a short list of executives who have won three rings, a list that includes contemporaries Brian Cashman and Brian Sabean.

Of course, Epstein can't claim to have constructed the entire Cubs roster, no more than he could have done when the Red Sox won in '04.

In Boston, Epstein inherited key players such as Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek. Similarly, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras pre-date Epstein's arrival on the North Side.

But Epstein is responsible for nearly the remainder of the roster, and hiring manager Joe Maddon, the coaching staff and most of the Baseball Operations staff, including GM Jed Hoyer and scouting director Jason McLeod.

Francona's influence on the Indians is just as obvious.

Hired in late 2012 after spending a year in the ESPN broadcast booth, he inherited a team which had suffered through four straight losing seasons. In the five previous years before Francona's hiring, the Indians averaged just over 72 wins per season.

Since his arrival, the Indians have posted four straight winning seasons, with two playoff appearances, while averaging 88 wins per season.

It hasn't seemed to matter to the Indians that they've been without two of their three best starters (Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco) this postseason or arguably, their best offensive player for all but 11 games this season (Michael Brantley).

The Indians don't make excuses for injuries, or bemoan their modest payroll. Under Francona, they just win.

This postseason, he's made up for the absences in the rotation by masterfully utilizing reliever Andrew Miller anywhere from the fifth to the ninth inning.

A third World Series would put Francona in similarly rare company. Only 10 managers have won three or more World Series and just six have done so since World War 2 - Walter Alston, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, Bruce Bochy Sparky Anderson and Casey Stengel.

The individual accomplishments of Epstein and Francona won't take center stage this week and next -- that attention will, rightly, go to their respective beleaguered franchises.

But the subtext shouldn't be overlooked. Once the partying and the parades come to an end, a path to Cooperstown for either the winning manager or winning president of baseball operations can be cleared.


NLCS: Cubs eliminate Dodgers, reach Series for first time since 1945


NLCS: Cubs eliminate Dodgers, reach Series for first time since 1945

CHICAGO -- Cursed by a Billy Goat, bedeviled by Bartman and crushed by decades of disappointment, the Chicago Cubs are at long last headed back to the World Series.

Kyle Hendricks outpitched Clayton KershawAnthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras homered early and the Cubs won their first pennant since 1945, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 Saturday night in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series.

The drought ended when closer Aroldis Chapman got Yasiel Puig to ground into a double play, setting off a wild celebration inside Wrigley Field, outside the ballpark and all over the city.

Seeking their first crown since 1908, manager Joe Maddon's team opens the World Series at Cleveland on Tuesday night. The Indians haven't won it all since 1948 - Cleveland and Cubs have the two longest title waits in the majors.

"This city deserves it so much," Rizzo said. "We got four more big ones to go, but we're going to enjoy this. We're going to the World Series. I can't even believe that."

All-everything Javier Baez and pitcher Jon Lester shared the NLCS MVP. Baez hit .318, drove in five runs and made several sharp plays at second base. Lester, a former World Series champion in Boston, was 1-0 with a 1.38 ERA in two starts against the Dodgers.

Deemed World Series favorites since opening day, the Cubs topped the majors with 103 wins to win the NL Central, then beat the Giants and Dodgers in the playoffs.

The Cubs overcame a 2-1 deficit against the Dodgers and won their 17th pennant. They had not earned a World Series trip since winning a doubleheader opener 4-3 at Pittsburgh on Sept. 29, 1945, to clinch the pennant on the next-to-last day of the season.

The eternal "wait till next year" is over. No more dwelling on a history of failure - the future is now.

"We're too young. We don't care about it," star slugger Kris Bryant said. "We don't look into it. This is a new team, this is a completely different time of our lives. We're enjoying it and our work's just getting started."

Hendricks pitched two-hit ball for 7 1/3 innings. Chapman took over and closed with hitless relief, then threw both arms in the air as he was mobbed by teammates and coaches.

The crowd joined in, chanting and serenading their team.

"Chicago!" shouted popular backup catcher David Ross.

The Cubs shook off back-to-back shutout losses earlier in this series by pounding the Dodgers for 23 runs to win the final three games.

And they were in no way overwhelmed by the moment on Saturday, putting aside previous frustration.

In 1945, the Billy Goat Curse supposedly began when a tavern owner wasn't allowed to bring his goat to Wrigley. In 2003, the Cubs lost the final three games of the NLCS to Florida, punctuated with a Game 6 defeat when fan Steve Bartman deflected a foul ball.

Even as recently as 2012, the Cubs lost 101 times.

This time, no such ill luck.

Bryant had an RBI single and scored in a two-run first. Dexter Fowler added two hits, drove in a run and scored one.

Contreras led off the fourth with a homer. Rizzo continued his resurgence with a solo drive in the fifth.

That was plenty for Hendricks, the major league ERA leader.

Hendricks left to a standing ovation after Josh Reddick singled with one out in the eighth. The only other hit Hendricks allowed was a single by Andrew Toles on the game's first pitch.

Kershaw, dominant in Game 2 shutout, gave up five runs and seven hits before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the sixth. He fell to 4-7 in the postseason.

The Dodgers haven't been to the World Series since winning in 1988.

Pitching on five days' rest, the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner threw 30 pitches in the first. Fowler led off with a double, and Bryant's single had the crowd shaking the 102-year-old ballpark.

They had more to cheer when left fielder Andrew Toles dropped Rizzo's fly, putting runners on second and third, and Ben Zobrist made it 2-0 a sacrifice fly.

The Cubs added a run in the second when Addison Russell doubled to deep left and scored on a two-out single by Fowler.


Maddon benched slumping right fielder Jason Heyward in favor of Albert Almora Jr.

"Kershaw's pitching, so I wanted to get one more right-handed bat in the lineup, and also with Albert I don't feel like we're losing anything on defense," Maddon said. "I know Jason's a Gold Glover, but I think Albert, given an opportunity to play often enough would be considered a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder, too."

Heyward was 2 for 28 in the playoffs - 1 for 16 in the NLCS.


Kerry Wood, wearing a Ron Santo jersey, threw out the first pitch and actor Jim Belushi delivered the "Play Ball!" call before the game. Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder and actor John Cusack were also in attendance. And Bulls great Scottie Pippen led the seventh-inning stretch.