PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — It was about a year ago that Andrew Bailey ran to cover first in the seventh inning of a spring training game against Pittsburgh and collided with the runner.
Bailey jammed his right thumb on the play but kept pitching. It wasn’t until about a week later that doctors told him he had torn the ulnar collateral ligament and needed surgery.
Instead of closing games for the Red Sox, Bailey was on the disabled list for 4½ months. By the time he returned in August, the Red Sox were out of contention and in chaos.
“Just a routine play,” Bailey said. “You go cover the bag and next thing you know you can’t pitch for most of the season.”
The impact of the injury reverberated for months. Bailey didn’t pitch well when he returned and in December the Sox replaced him as closer when they acquired Joel Hanrahan in a trade with the Pirates.
Now Bailey is one of the set-up men, a pitcher used in the seventh or eighth inning to protect a lead. It’s an important job, but a significant step down for a player who twice made the All-Star team as a closer for Oakland.
But Bailey has greater worries than a loss of status. The 28-year-old, who becomes a free agent after the 2014 season, has appeared in only 108 games over the last three seasons because of injuries.
Bailey was on the disabled list twice in 2010 and missed the first two months of the 2011 season recovering from a strained forearm. Last season’s injury, although a fluke, added to the reputation Bailey has for not being able to stay healthy.
“That’s what I’m focusing on, pitching the whole season,” Bailey said. “With the situation with the closer, everybody wants to close. But I think for me the priority is staying healthy for a full season and putting up the good numbers that I am capable of.
“You never want to get labeled as an injury guy and I know I’m on the cusp of that. I’ve battled a couple of injuries throughout my career. It hasn’t been anything super serious, but they have cost me a couple of months.
“At this point in my career, I know I have to stay healthy and prove I can stay healthy. I know if I do that, I’ll do what I’m capable of on the field.”
Bailey has pitched fairly well in spring training, allowing three earned runs over six innings. He has given up 10 hits but also struck out eight without a walk.
Bailey worked a scoreless inning in Saturday’s 9-2 win against the Rays.
The bullpen should be a strong point for the Red Sox with Bailey joining Koji Uehara and Andrew Miller as pitchers John Farrell can use in high-leverage situations before Hanrahan.
“With Andrew, with Koji, we’ve got a number of guys with late-inning experience,” Farrell said. “And the more we can shorten down that game with quality power arms and guys that can force a mis-hit or swing and miss, I think, puts us in a better position.”
Bailey, Farrell said, will have to pay closer attention to controlling the running game as a set-up man than he did as a closer. He also will need to command the strike zone better.
“I think there’s a greater need to pitch ahead in the count in the eighth inning versus the ninth inning,” said the manager. “I think the closer has some benefit of aggressiveness by the opposition where they may expand the [strike] zone a little more.”
A bigger issue before the start of camp would be how Bailey handled the demotion. Farrell announced on the day Hanrahan was obtained that he would be the closer, ending the thought of any competition.
“At the time of the trade, we didn’t feel like it was a pitch-off or a competition,” said Farrell. “We felt this was the best way to establish it so there was no confusion on anyone’s part.”
Bailey has said consistently that he considers himself a closer and wants that role again, whether it’s with the Red Sox or another team. But that has been the extent of his comments.
“He’s been a total pro about it,” said Farrell. “Whether it was the conversations that he’s had with [the media] back in the offseason or the findings and interactions we’ve had after Joel was acquired. That hasn’t changed.
“I think it speaks volumes to the type of guy he is and the person. He’s a team-oriented guy and recognizes the reason for the trade — a chance for us to get better as a team — and he supported it.”
Miller said Bailey’s attitude is something other players have noted.
“Andrew was an established closer in Oakland and he’s been a great teammate with everything that has happened the last few months,” Miller said. “He’s gone about his business the right way.”
Perspective helps. As Bailey was returning from his injury last season, he also became a father for the first time. Bailey rushed from Seattle, where he was with the team, to be with his wife Amanda in Connecticut when she gave birth to a daughter. The family has been together in spring training.
“You want to do the right thing,” Bailey said. “This is a good clubhouse and guys are excited about the season. I just want to pitch well and everything else will be fine.”
Hanrahan will be a free agent after the season, so his tenure with the Red Sox could be brief. Bailey is under team control for two more seasons. Given the unpredictable nature of relief pitching, roles can change quickly.
“I know my opportunities will come along the way,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. Those things play out themselves. Joel is obviously a proven closer.
“Last year was frustrating for me. I was brought in here to do a job and didn’t do it. Now I want to show people I can pitch and be counted on. That’s all that really matters.”