BoSox bullpen clearly is baseball's best

Gordon Edes
Yahoo! Sports

They don't have a nickname like "The Nasty Boys" of the Rob Dibble-Norm Charlton-Randy Myers ilk, and Jonathan Papelbon(notes) leaves little room for anybody else's personality to make it through the bullpen door. But there is little debate these days that the deepest bullpen in baseball belongs to the Boston Red Sox, who with John Smoltz(notes) due to be activated next week may lay claim soon to having the game's strongest starting rotation as well.

Red Sox relievers come at teams in waves, as the Phillies learned first-hand Friday night in Philadelphia, where the Red Sox won 5-2 in 13 innings. Boston manager Terry Francona did not have Papelbon available Friday night – the closer had saved wins in each of the previous two nights against the New York Yankees.

Yet without Papelbon, here was the Boston bullpen line against the Phillies: 6 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 9 K.

The game ended with rookie Daniel Bard(notes), who was called up last month, earning his first big-league save by striking out Jayson Werth(notes), Ryan Howard(notes) and Shane Victorino(notes), putting away strongman Howard with a terrific slider after getting ahead with 98-mph fastballs.

Bard, a first-round draft pick out of North Carolina in 2006, turns 24 on June 25. He has pitched in 10 games, with most of his appearances so far coming in games in which the Red Sox were either well ahead or behind. Still, the numbers have been spectacular: one earned run in 12 innings with 13 strikeouts and four walks. Right-handed batters are hitting just .087 (2-for-23) against him, and both of those hits were singles.

"I don't feel new,'' Bard said. "They donâ??t treat me any different. I'm just one of the guys in the pen.''

No pink backpacks to wear to the pen, like some teams make their rookies do.

"I've just got to carry an 80-pound bag of stuff to the pen,'' he said. "We've got a big green tackle box. I got lucky there.''

Bard is a closer-in-waiting, yet Francona has the luxury of picking his spots for him because of the caliber of the other arms in the pen. Papelbon is making his case for being the game's best closer, though he had some struggles earlier with his control.

Takashi Saito(notes), 39, closed last season for the Dodgers, who were scared off from re-signing him because of elbow problems. He's healthy now.

Justin Masterson(notes), who pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings Friday night, has both started and relieved since making his big-league debut last season.

Ramon Ramirez, who came from Kansas City in the Coco Crisp(notes) deal, and holdover Manny Delcarmen(notes), who has local roots (West Roxbury High), give the Red Sox two more power arms that can hit 95 and higher.

Then there is the left-hander, Hideki Okajima(notes), one of general manager Theo Epstein's greatest finds, whose changeup and splitter have confounded hitters since his arrival from Japan in 2007.

"It's exciting,'' Papelbon said, "and at the same time we have a lot to live up to. You know what? Everybody in the bullpen kind of likes that, likes those expectations, wants those expectations. We all like to be challenged. We've got a good mix. It's definitely the best bullpen I've been part of, but still, we have a lot to accomplish.''

The bullpen ERA is a major league-best 2.83, and Boston relievers have lost a league-low six games while allowing just 24 percent of inherited runners to score, the only team in the AL with a percentage better than 30.

Papelbon, Saito and Okajima all have been closers, though Okajima primarily served as a setup man when he played for the Yomiuri Giants. Delcarmen, whose name has come up in trade speculation, could wind up closing somewhere else.

"Sometimes I feel like there's almost more pressure in the innings leading up to the ninth,'' said Masterson, a fifth-round pick in 2006 out of San Diego State, which this June produced phenom Stephen Strasburg in the draft. "There's so much happening, so much going on in those three innings leading up to the ninth.

"There's so much drama put on the closer and Papelbon does such a wonderful job, but I think what truly gets lost in the shuffle are the guys who do the sixth, seventh and eighth. You don't put much glamour on it, but you're talking three innings – that's a long time. There's a kind of pressure there without the intensity from the crowd you get when you pitch in the ninth.''

Okajima remains something of a mystery, primarily because of the language barrier.

"We've gone out to eat,'' third baseman Mike Lowell(notes) said, "and talked through his interpreter, but it's hard when you see him and the interpreter is not there. I can't even battle a couple of words because the languages don't come close. I say hello, good job. I tell Saito, 'You're the man' before he comes in and that's it.''

But Okajima's translator, Jeff Yamaguchi, said Okajima is happier this season having countryman Saito around.

"And Ramon Ramirez pitched in Japan a little bit and knows a few words,'' Delcarmen said. "Those guys bow to each other and all. It's fun.''

The Red Sox's bullpen coach is Gary Tuck, who held the same job with the Yankees when Mariano Rivera(notes) held sway as the game's foremost closer. He has done a terrific job of fostering camaraderie and commitment that show most when the bullpen is not at its best.

On Wednesday night, Ramirez gave up back-to-back home runs in the seventh to Johnny Damon(notes) and Mark Teixeira(notes) of the Yankees after giving up just one home run in his first 27 appearances. But Okajima entered and got four big outs, striking out Derek Jeter(notes) and Damon with the tying run on base in the eighth before turning the game over to Papelbon.

On Thursday night, Delcarmen, who had given up just one earned run to the Yankees in his career, blew a 3-0 lead, giving up a two-run double to Alex Rodriguez(notes), but Saito came in to get four outs and the win when the Sox rallied.

On Friday night, it was Ramirez again, giving up a game-tying home run to Ryan Howard in the ninth. But Saito, Masterson and Bard combined to hold the Phillies scoreless the rest of the way.

"Sometimes I go, 'Wow,' '' Masterson said. "All our righties are hard throwers and have shown they can pitch in tough situations, and then there's Oki. Daniel is the lone rookie, and he's shown great fortitude. If one guy slips, somebody else is there to pick him up.''

That's a formula that can take you deep into October.


World Series preview?: No, we're not talking a Subway Series here. This is what one scout said of the Red Sox and Phillies after seeing both teams in the last 10 days.

"Philadelphia and Boston are a lot like each other. Why do I like them? Because both teams have depth, and both teams have tremendous grit and toughness, especially in the late innings.

Big Papi, Mini-Magglio: While David Ortiz(notes) showed some signs of getting untracked this week, with two home runs in three games against the Yankees, the Tigers remained confounded by Magglio Ordonez's(notes) slump. Ordonez has not hit a home run in his last 35 games, which matches Ortiz's homerless streak at the start of the season. The Tigers slugger hasn't homered since April 27, when he took CC Sabathia(notes) deep in Comerica Park. He came into the weekend with a lower slugging percentage (.348) than the Tigers' light-hitting shortstop, Adam Everett(notes) (.375).

"The thing about Magglio, he's such a good hitter, he's still putting the ball in play,'' said one American League scout, "but he's not driving the ball. I can't even remember the last time I saw him hit a ball to the left side. He says he's OK [physically], but the swing looks long, just like with Ortiz, and like Ortiz, he's cheating on fastballs.''

Gimme shelter: With Ryan Perry(notes) recalled, a future Detroit opponent may be faced with what the Orioles saw from the Tigers a couple of weeks ago. Starter Justin Verlander(notes) hit 100 on the radar gun, Perry hit 99, Joel Zumaya(notes) hit 102, and Fernando Rodney(notes) hit 99 – all in the same game.

Not on the guest list: Red Sox owner John W. Henry, who intends to marry at the end of the month, is planning to hold his wedding reception in the outfield at Fenway Park, but the guest list most certainly will not include Mark Teixeira. After the Yankees were swept this week by the Red Sox, Henry sent this message on his Twitter account: "MT curse?'' Purely for entertainment, he would say later, but Teixeira didn't sound particularly amused, telling Tyler Kepner of the New York Times that he wouldn't be drawn into a "war of words with a 70-something-year-old man.'' Ouch. Henry turns 60 in September. The wounds opened during last winter's negotiations, which ended with Teixeira spurning the Red Sox in the 11th hour to sign with the Bombers, seem to be fresh on both sides.

All in the bloodlines: In case you missed it, here are some familiar names that went in the draft earlier this week: The Red Sox took Michael Yastrzemski, grandson of the Hall of Famer, in the 36th round. The White Sox drafted Tyler Williams, son of GM Kenny Williams, in the 43rd round. Joey Jocketty, son of Reds GM Walt Jocketty, was taken by the Cubs in the 47th round. Sterling Monfort, son of Rockies owner Dick Monfort, was drafted by Colorado in the 47th round. Mark Tracy, son of manager Jim Tracy, went to Colorado in the 49th round, while the Athletics drafted Christopher O'Dowd, son of Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd, in the 40th round. The Angels drafted Asaad Ali, son of Muhammad Ali, in the 40th round, while Gavin McCourt, son of Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, was taken by the Red Sox in the 39th round.

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