On Wednesday night, Andrew Bailey ran to the pitcher’s mound from the bullpen at Progressive Field in Cleveland and recorded three consecutive outs. He pocketed his first save of 2013, and the Red Sox notched their tenth win of the season.
The scene was similar on Thursday night for Bailey and the Red Sox in the ninth. Strike out. Foul out. Ground out. Save. Ballgame.
It was a pair of uneventful ninth innings — just what you’d want from your closer — but it represented something larger, something that the Red Sox desperately missed last season: bullpen depth.
In 2012, before Bailey even pitched in a regular season game, he underwent surgery on his thumb due to an injury he may have suffered during a collision at first base during Spring Training (it was pitching coach Bob McClure who disclosed that Bailey first felt soreness in his thumb when he was squeezing his bottle of shampoo in the shower). With Daniel Bard transitioning from eighth inning reliever/fireman to starting pitcher, Bobby Valentine was left to choose between Alfredo Aceves and the newly acquired Mark Melancon.
Aceves was anointed the closer, and like many members of the Red Sox bullpen, he failed. His command suffered greatly in the role, but he was far from the being the only ineffective reliever.
April 21, 2012. It was a Saturday afternoon game at Fenway Park against the Yankees. And it epitomized the utter disaster that was the Red Sox bullpen. The Sox lineup pounded out crooked number after crooked number early in the ballgame. They had racked up nine runs before Mark Teixeira hit a seemingly innocuous solo home run off of Felix Doubront during the lefty’s last inning of work. Doubront left the game after the sixth with 9-1 lead, and when Cody Eppley threw the last pitch of the game it was 15-9, in favor of the Yankees. Vicente Padilla, Matt Albers, Franklin Morales, Aceves, and Justin Thomas (Junichi Tazawa gave up one hit and no run in his 1.1 innings of work) combined to allow 14 runs, 13 of them were earned. The Yankees won the game, and the Red Sox bullpen was downright atrocious.
To be fair, it’s not as if the Red Sox bullpen was relinquishing nine-run leads from the first pitch of the season all the way until Game 162. In fact, the bullpen turned things around a bit following their aforementioned implosion on April 21. From April 23-May 25, the Sox ‘pen posted to lowest ERA in the big leagues. So while things may not have been as bad as they were that Saturday afternoon at the Fens in April, it’s fair to say that the Red Sox bullpen was much more of a weakness than it was an asset last season.
Just like 2012, this year’s Red Sox team lost their closer early. Joel Hanrahan was placed on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring on Tuesday. He is still experiencing soreness.
Hanrahan wasn’t available on Monday, and yes, Bailey blew his first save chance on Patriot’s Day against the Rays. But this year’s Red Sox are much more capable of dealing with the loss of a key member of their bullpen. With Hanrahan on the shelf, John Farrell has the luxury of turning to Bailey, a guy who the Boston Globe’s Chad Finn accurately characterizes as “a statistical comp for Jonathan Papelbon during his three seasons in Oakland.”
What if Bailey falters in the role? The Red Sox have options.
Tazawa has emerged as one of the most reliable options out of the bullpen, not only on the Red Sox, but in the entire American League. He has everything that a manager would look for in a closer–he has excellent stuff and refuses to issue free passes. Ideally, Tazawa will not be asked to close ballgames in 2013 but should Bailey and Hanrahan succumb to injuries or fail to perform, the Red Sox have a legitimate third option. Not many teams can say that about the backend of their bullpen.
Do the Red Sox have one of the game’s top tier closers like they did when Papelbon was still employed by the team? No. But they do possess a tremendous amount of depth that should only deepen as pitchers like Hanrahan, Craig Breslow, and Morales return from injury.
Baseball is a war of attrition, and the bullpen is certainly not immune. The 2013 Red Sox, unlike last year, stand a real chance to succeed in battle.