LAKELAND, Fla. Terry Francona has his bullpen foundation set in stone, what with Jonathan Papelbon, Bobby Jenks and Daniel Bard forming a power-armed trio around which everything else will be built.
But the Sox have other pieces within that relief corps, and the decision as to which ones to keep is being made more difficult by the way each of those candidates is performing this spring.
Milton native and former Cubs starter Rich Hill has performed well as a potential situational left-hander. Andrew Miller has impressed manager Terry Francona with his mature approach and lively arm. Scott Atchison, of course, earned the trust and respect of the coaching staff last year during the regular season. Matt Albers, with four strikeouts in 4 13 innings, is another player whos forced his way into consideration.
Well have an interesting last week, said Francona when asked about the bullpen. Thats for sure. Weve had some really interesting things happen. Well try to make good decisions not only for Opening Day, but also for our whole organization.
Hill hasnt been scored upon in four innings of work this spring. Atchison has allowed a pair of runs in five innings, which included a rough outing after Josh Beckett was knocked out against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday. Miller has four strikeouts in four innings despite giving up five hits.
By the sheer numbers it would appear Hill has the inside edge but Miller is intriguing as a 6-foot-7 left-hander with a first-round pedigree and, at 25 years old, plenty of time to find his niche. His 5.84 career ERA as a starter in stints with the Detroit Tigers and Florida Marlins isnt much to write home about, but, in this case, past may not be prologue.
I cant sit here and say theres a guy that doesnt deserve to be on the ballclub. Theyve all done pretty well. Rich Hill threw his best innings of the spring against the Yankees Monday night. Albers has been tremendous all spring, said Francona. Atchison just goes and gets em out. Miller is really exciting to us. No matter our decision is at the end, its still going to be good news.
Were probably going to have to tell a couple of guys things they dont want to hear, but I think it bodes well for the organization.
Jacoby Ellsbury continued his torrid spring with another home run, this one smacked off Tigers ace Justin Verlander, as he and Darnell McDonald (solo homer in the 10th inning) provided the offense for the Sox in a 2-1 win at Joker Marchant Stadium.
The only other hit for the Sox =- despite the presence of a handful of regulars who traveled 2 12 hours to Lakeland to take on the Tigers -- was a J.D. Drew single.
Francona was still raving Tuesday about the combined efforts of Bobby Jenks and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to nail Curtis Granderson in a stolen-base attempt Monday night against the Yankees.
Jenks employed a slide step with the runner on base at the behest of the Boston coaching staff. The thinking is that Jenks will be in plenty of tight situations in the late innings with the Sox, and the ability to control the running game something Jenks was never able to do against the White Sox, when he was concentrating on simply closing down ballgames will be paramount to Bostons success.
Last night was probably the most excited Ive been all spring, said Francona. Bobby being the closer with the White Sox, they sometimes fall into that thing where you forget about base runners a little bit. Jonathan Papelbon is the same thing. When youre in for the seventh and eighth inning as Jenks is expected to be this year, those are situations where a team might be a little more apt to steal and Granderson was on first obviously wanting to run.
Jenks threw his pitches, he executed the slide step, he throw over to first and he gave Salty a chance to throw him out. He came off and I grilled him a little bit. He said Im fine. You guys do whatever you want. It was really encouraging because he handled everything. Threw every pitch out of the slide step and felt comfortable. That was good.
Jason Varitek was genuinely touched when apprised the complimentary things that Victor Martinez said about the Sox captain prior to Tuesdays game. Martinez said Varitek was a key figure in the younger backstop transitioning to Boston so quickly, and V-Mart said that Variteks help made him a better baseball player in the long run.
Varitek admitted the two chirped back and forth with each other when Martinez stepped to the plate in the second inning to face Daisuke Matsuzaka, but got serious when talking about Martinezs kind words.
That really does mean a lot to me, said Varitek. Those are the kinds of things that stay with you long after youre done playing.
Former ESPN anchor and MSNBC news host Keith Olbermann is a longtime friend of Francona, and was milling around the Joker Marchant Stadium area prior to the game. He walked over by the Sox dugout during the Sox skippers pregame media availability, and Francona perked up with: Theres my bench coach!