The 'pen is mightier than . . . well, anything

The 'pen is mightier than . . . well, anything
April 18, 2013, 11:00 am
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CLEVELAND -- Just down the hall from the visitor's clubhouse in the bowels of Progressive Field, there are framed posters that cover the otherwise drab walls, highlighting favorite quotes from past Cleveland Indian greats. One, in particular, from former pitcher and manager Bob Lemon, a Hall of Famer, seemed especially apt Wednesday night after the Red Sox had posted their fifth straight win, a 6-3 victory over the host Indians.

The two most important things in life are good friends and a good bullpen.

It's doubtful John Farrell would offer much of an argument.

For the second straight night Wednesday, Farrell's starter failed to record an out in the sixth inning. On Tuesday, in the series opener, Felix Doubront, as is his wont, saw his pitch count curtail his night, done after 104 pitches and 15 outs.

It was nearly more of the same Wednesday. Alfredo Aceves, a plug-in for John Lackey, wobbled in the fifth, helped by a fine running catch from Shane Victorino which left the bases loaded and the Indians still scoreless. He wasn't nearly as fortunate in the sixth, however, as first Nick Swisher and then Jason Giambi belted tape-measure homers to pull within two runs of the Sox.

Once again, Farrell turned to his bullpen. And once again, the bullpen didn't disappointment.

First, Junichi Tazawa stranded Mark Reynolds in scoring position, retiring all three hitters he faced (the last, Drew Stubbs by strikeout). In the seventh, he seemed to toy with the Indians, striking out the side.

Koji Uehara was next, quickly dispatching three hitters in the eighth, fanning the final two before embarking on his now-trademark victory tour, nearly bowling over teammates in the dugout with celebratory fist bumps and high fives.

"As well as he pitches,'' said Farrell of Uehara, "he should have a lot of energy.''

Finally, Andrew Bailey, having temporarily reclaimed the closer's role as Joel Hanrahan recovers from a strained right hamstring, nailed down his first save of the season.

The final collective tally for the bullpen: 12 batters faced, 12 retired, 8 by strikeout.

Over the first two games of the series, Boston relievers have pitched a combined eight scoreless innings, allowing just four baserunners and two hits -- both singles. They've walked two while striking out 10.

By his own admission, Farrell pushed Aceves further than he would have liked, sending him back out for the sixth after the right-hander teetered in the fifth. But "after a five-inning start [from Doubront Tuesday] night, [it was] just to try to take some of the workload off the bullpen," said Farrell.

Fortunately for the manager, the bullpen was up for the challenge. It helped that Farrell had been able to get two innings each from Clayton Mortensen and Alex Wilson the night before, giving his high-leverage relievers -- Tazawa and Uehara -- some time to recover.

In seven apperances this season, covering eight innings, Tazawa has allowed six hits while stirking out eight. He hasn't issued a walk. Meanwhile, Uehara has pitched 6 1/3 innings and allowed exactly one hit while striking out seven. The one walk he's allowed was intentional.

"He's a great pitcher,'' said Tazawa of Uehara, "and I really feel honored to pitch with him, so I'm just trying to keep up with what he's doing so far.''

Combined, then, Tazawa and Uehara have thrown 13 1/3 innings while seven hits, one (intentional) walk and registered 15 strikeouts. When a Japanese reporter asked Farrell if he was "seeing [Tazawa and Uehara] improving a lot,'' the manager deadpanned: "Well, if they improve over what they've done so far, we've really got something.''

For the season, the bullpen has held opponents are hitting just .192.

One concern, however, is the workload Farrell referenced. Though the Sox have yet to have a starter allow more than three earned runs in a game through 14 games, the starters have averaged less than six innings per outing. Over time, that's a formula for trouble.

It helps that Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, who've shown an ability to carry the Sox deeper into starts, will pitch the next two nights, theoretically giving the bullpen some time to recover. But when the Red Sox needed their relievers Tuesday and Wednesday nights, they were ready for the challenge.

As Bob Lemon would tell you, that's what friends -- and bullpens -- are for.