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Taxing season for 'pen

Sox relievers feel pinch in early April stretch

Just when it looked like the Red Sox bullpen -- billed as one of baseball's best entering the season -- had overcome the ravages of last week's 13-inning nightmare in Baltimore, a powerful aftershock struck Sunday, all but knocking the beleaguered relief corps to its knees.

"It's been a long week and a half," said closer Keith Foulke, who already has pitched more pressure-packed innings (5 2/3) than the five he worked last year for the A's in the Division Series against the Sox. "It feels like Opening Day was a month ago."

Foulke said he already felt the toll, and he was far from alone after Sunday's draining 6-4 victory in 12 innings over the Blue Jays. Mike Timlin took such a hit for the pen Friday -- throwing 36 pitches without his best stuff in a losing cause -- that the Sox could not use him Sunday when they needed him badly. Nor could they turn to Scott Williamson, who felt soreness in his surgically repaired right elbow while warming up Sunday.

The Sox squeezed 12 pitches out of Alan Embree, who managed to retire two of the four Toronto batters he faced, appearing for the fifth time in the first seven games.

"I wasn't 100 percent," Embree said, "but I was good enough to get in there."

So it went as the Sox entered the offday yesterday hoping 48 hours of rest before tonight's game against the Orioles would ease the bullpen trauma. While Sox starters are 3-1 with a 3.20 ERA through the first seven games, the relievers have gone 1-2 with a 4.24 ERA and have converted two of three save opportunities.

"We'll be OK if we don't play two 12-plus-inning games a week the rest of the year," general manager Theo Epstein said. "If we do, we might have to go with a 15-man staff."

The Sox already have expanded the staff to 12 from 11, designating utilityman Brian Daubach for assignment to make room for a long reliever, Frank Castillo, from Triple A. A second farmhand, Mark Malaska, was summoned to fill the void when Ramiro Mendoza landed on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis.

But while Malaska flourished Sunday, retiring all six batters he faced in the 11th and 12th innings to nail down the victory, the Sox encountered another problem with the performance of Bobby Jones. The lefthander, who walked four of the last five batters he faced in Baltimore last Thursday to force in the decisive run, failed to find the strike zone again Sunday, walking two batters on eight pitches in the 11th inning before Malaska rescued him.

"Jonesy got squeezed a little bit, for real," catcher Jason Varitek said of the umpiring. "But you can't make excuses because when you throw a lot of balls, you're not going to get that borderline strike."

Epstein expressed support for Jones, though it remains to be seen how long the backing will last. Because baseball rules prevent the Sox from calling up farmhands who have options until 10 days into the minor league season, Jones might survive long enough to get another chance. Saturday will mark the 10th day of Pawtucket's season. The next candidate is lefthander Tim Hamulack, whom Jones edged out in spring training for the final spot in the pen.

While Jones clearly needs to correct his mechanics, his bullpen mates may need little more than the 48-hour respite to regain their strength. The relievers have faced several challenges, including traveling from Fort Myers, Fla., to Atlanta to Baltimore to Boston over eight days, with the last leg turning into an all-nighter because of mechanical problems with their chartered jet.

"Going from warm weather to cold weather also may be getting to us a little bit, but we'll be just fine," Foulke said. "I guarantee you that. "

Timlin has struggled to find his touch in his first four outings, surrendering six runs in 3 1/3 innings. Batters have hit .467 against him and he has issued three walks, as many as he allowed in his first 31 appearances of last year through June 21.

"April is always tough," Timlin said. "It's because of the cold. It's because you're trying to get into a groove. It's because there's a different concentration level and you're trying to find out where your spot is."

Timlin told Terry Francona he could pitch Sunday, but the manager spared him.

"For the bullpen, the day off is going to be great," Timlin said.

No one seemed to need rest more than Williamson, though he downplayed the severity of his soreness. Williamson said he would have entered the game Sunday if bullpen coach Euclides Rojas had not intervened.

"He said, `I really didn't like the way you warmed up. In your face, it looked like you were hurting a little bit,' " Williamson said. "As a player, you're like, `Yeah, I'm all right, because I'm a competitor,' but Eukie knows us all maybe better than we know ourselves. He's looking out for your career. You've got to respect that. There's a lot of people who don't even care. They say, `Go in there.' "

Williamson went home with a stock of anti-inflammatories.

The rest period may be crucial since the Sox begin a stretch tonight in which they play 32 games in 33 days, including seven in the next two weeks against the Yankees.

"It's one of those things where you've got to just weather the storm," Foulke said. "We'll come around with guns a-blazing here before too long."

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