Another bumpy ride
Bullpen hasn't smoothed out yet
First the good news. Red Sox closer Byung Hyun Kim came on in the ninth and knocked down the Baltimore Orioles in order last night to tally his 16th save, preserving a hard-earned 7-5 victory for starter Jeff Suppan.
Now for the bad: It never should have come to that. When Suppan left the game after six strong innings, he had given up just two runs and tossed his Red Sox cap back into the ring as a postseason possibility in some role.
All he needed was for the bullpen to maintain some level of consistency in the final three innings. But, like so many other times this season, the relievers turned the game into an adventure. Todd Jones replaced Suppan to start the seventh with a 6-2 lead, then promptly gave up a home run to Jack Cust on an 0-and-1 pitch. Jones was gone after two-thirds of an inning, giving way to Alan Embree, who served as emergency closer Friday in Cleveland, when Kim couldn't get the job done.
Embree, too, struggled to make the pitches. He, too, lasted two-thirds of an inning and was tagged for four hits and two runs. By the time Mike Timlim came on in the eighth, Embree had loaded the bases. Timlin was the third consecutive reliever to give up a hit to the first batter he faced -- a ground ball single to Brook Fordyce, which drove in a run. Brian Roberts knocked in another run with a sacrifice fly, and by the time the middle relievers were through, Suppan's cushy lead had been reduced to 6-5.
Asked if he were disappointed that the bullpen didn't do a better job protecting Suppan's excellent outing, manager Grady Little answered, "To be quite honest with you, the disappointment has been gone for a couple of months now. I kind of put myself in the frame of mind like we do on an airplane when we are getting ready to take off, and they say, `Buckle your seatbelts,' and there might be a little turbulence.
"But tonight we had a safe landing and that is all we can ask. It was a big win for the ball club."
It was also a significant night for Kim, whose closer role was in jeopardy as recently as four days ago, when he couldn't shut the door in Cleveland. At the time, Little conceded that he wasn't sure who the closer would be from that point on. If it was a challenge to Kim, it appears to have worked. Kim submitted his second straight 1-2-3 inning last night.
First, he coaxed Larry Bigbie into a grounder to the left of the mound that could have evolved into an infield hit, if not for Kim's athleticism. Next, Kim relied on a running backhand catch from Manny Ramirez in left on a Jay Gibbons fly ball. Then he called it a night after inducing another ground ball from Tony Batista to end it.
Kim, who was ahead in the count on every batter, was feeling so energetic that he ran laps around the Fenway lawn after the game, as his coaches surmised that the public declaration that his job was in jeopardy may have spurred him on.
"I don't know," said Little. "That's probably human nature."
"When we went to Alan last Friday, that might have been a little shock to B.K., but that's OK," said pitching coach Dave Wallace. "The key tonight was I'm not sure any other pitcher on our staff would have been able to make that play defensively on Bigbie. That's huge. Those are the kind of things that snowball when you don't execute."
Tell the bullpen about it. It has been maligned for much of the season, and now the manager is likening it to turbulence. Embree, who insisted he felt great on the mound, said he won't dwell on another botched attempt by the middle relievers to prove they can be part of the solution.
"Now it's just a matter of counting down wins," said Embree. "For [the bullpen], it's going to be a matter of getting touches, getting sharp, getting the job done. We've got to find a way to do it."
They'd better hurry.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.