McAdam: Sox bullpen looks like real deal

McAdam: Sox bullpen looks like real deal
April 1, 2013, 7:15 pm
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NEW YORK -- Exactly a year ago, then-closer Andrew Bailey was undergoing surgery on his thumb and about to miss the first four and a half months of the season.
     
A quickly rejiggered bullpen then stubbed its collective toe for the first few weeks as roles were being determined and Alfredo Aceves struggled as the new closer. Two of the first three losses of the season were laid at the feet of the relievers.
     
But that was then.
     
This is now.
     
And based on just one game, the bullpen - even with two members starting the season on the disabled list -- is miles ahead of where it was a year ago.
     
In their 8-2 Opening Day romp over the New York Yankees, the bullpen took care of the final 12 outs after Jon Lester's 34-pitch fourth inning forced him from the game after five innings.
     
Over the final four innings, five Red Sox relievers combined to limit the Yankees just three baserunners.
     
"We felt coming into spring training that (the bullpen) had a chance to be one of the strengths of our club," said manager John Farrell, "and as each guy came to the mound today, they demonstrated good stuff, and they threw strikes."
     
It began with Koji Uehara, whose hyper-efficient sixth inning required five pitches for three outs. It got a little more complicated in the seventh when Andrew Miller walked Francisco Cervelli and Brett Gardner to bring the tying run to the plate with no outs.
     
But whereas Miller has struggled to make in-game adjustments in the past, this time he corrected his arm slot and froze Eduardo Nunez with a 98 mph fastball before overpowering Robinson Cano, the most dangerous hitter in the reduced New York lineup.
     
That brought Kevin Youkilis to the plate and Farrell out of the dugout, summoning Bailey. Stripped of his closer's title with the trade for Joel Hanrahan right after Christmas, Bailey has embraced the set-up role with renewed fervor.
     
"It's big to have roles determined," said Bailey, "and know when you're going to go in there is a big deal. About a week or two ago, in our meetings, they said that there would be some spots in the seventh inning when they would need me to come in and get a big out. I love those situations, with the game on the line.
     
"From Day One, when I was out in Oakland, I always said a lot of games are won or lost in the seventh or eighth inning and today was just one of them. For me, my mentality doesn't change (regardless of) what inning it is, especially in that type of situation."
     
Just as the Red Sox can boast of having three center fielders in the outfield early in the season, they have three relievers who have had 20 or more saves in a major league season: Bailey, Aceves and Hanrahan.
     
That kind of depth, versatility and experience leads to plenty of options for a team. And in a case like Monday, Bailey simply transferred the approach he used to take in the ninth into his assignment in the
seventh.
     
"All that changes," said Bailey, "is the inning you're throwing in."
     
Credit Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves with establishing a plan for the bullpen in which everyone knows what to expect and understands their individual roles.
     
"As we started to go to the pen in the sixth," said Farrell, "I think the (relievers) down there kind of had a sense how we were going to play this out. We've started to, I don't want to say get established roles toward the end of camp, but I think they were able to think along with it.
     
"The way today unfolded, to get that many guys to the mound today, and throwing strikes -- today was a good day in a number of ways."
     
For the most part, Aceves and Clayton Mortensen will handle the middle innings with the ability to provide multiple innings if the rest of the bullpen has been overworked.
     
Uehara can handle the seventh, and with his formidable changeup, is one more weapon against lefties until Franklin Morales and Craig Breslow return from DL stints.
     
That leaves Tazawa and Bailey to split the set-up duties, leading to Hanrahan.
     
Few teams can match those kind of options.
     
"Our goal," said Bailey, "is just to keep the score where it is, whether we're winning or losing. We have a pen that can do that. If we keep doing what we can do down there, today is just a glimpse of what you're going to see for the whole season."
     
A year ago, the way things started, that would have constituted a threat. This season, based on the opener, it sounded more like a promise.