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Just call it the bullish pen

Foulke provides big sigh of relief in late innings

When he finally flopped into bed well after 2 in the morning, naturally Red Sox manager Terry Francona couldn't sleep. His brain kicked into overdrive as soon as he lay down, and as the details of Game 1 of the World Series whirred through his head at near warp speed, he remained stuck on one particular juncture of the victory over St. Louis that both frightened and soothed him.

Stop the tape right there: Top of the eighth inning, two men on for St. Louis, one out, and the game tied at 9-9. Manny Ramirez had just committed back-to-back errors, and Francona's closer, Keith Foulke, was tagged with his first blown save of the postseason.

Foulke was instructed to intentionally walk the dangerous Albert Pujols to load the bases. He coaxed the usually lethal, yet uncharacteristically listless, Scott Rolen into a popup, which left him one out away from escaping a colossal mess.

The only person in his way was Jim Edmonds, the three-time All-Star who had clubbed 42 home runs and knocked in 111 runs during the regular season, and had hit three homers in the playoffs. Foulke, who had already given up a single to Edgar Renteria in the inning that was exacerbated by Ramirez's miscues, was looking, quite frankly, a little vulnerable.

"It's easy when things go wrong to put your head down for a minute, or take a deep breath, or even feel sorry for yourself," Francona said. "But then Foulke gets rolling on Edmonds. If they take the lead there, that's a whole different game, obviously."

If Edmonds had been able to slap a single, it would have likely scored two runs, and left Boston with a closer in trouble, a late-inning deficit, and a bullpen that was looking pretty scant. If he knocked one out, the game likely would have been over.

You could argue it was the most critical at-bat of the postseason.

No wonder the lasting image for Francona from Game 1 then was Edmonds getting caught looking at strike three on a nasty inside fastball by Foulke.

If there is one recurring theme in this magical postseason run for Boston -- aside, that is, from the sight of David Ortiz launching yet another towering home run -- it's Foulke on the mound, pumping his fist after striking out a heavy hitter from the other side. The Yankees couldn't touch him. Foulke blanked them on three consecutive nights, throwing 100 pitches, five innings, and not allowing a single run. He outpitched Yankees legend Mariano Rivera. Think about that for a moment.

We saw it again last night, as Foulke came on with one on and two out in the eighth just after the Cardinals scored to make it 6-2, to face none other than Edmonds again. Foulke fanned him on a weak swing to end the eighth, then set down the side in order in the ninth, completing his 13th straight appearance without allowing a run.

All you need to do is revisit Boston's recent bullpen history to appreciate how Foulke's consistency has solidified the pitching staff and stabilized this team. Last year, the Sox operated on a closer-by-committee plan in the early going, which was about as successful as it would be to have Kerry and Bush share presidential duties. Byung Hyun Kim tried and failed in the role, and Scott Williamson did the job for a while, and even Mike Timlin masqueraded as the closer in certain situations.

The best compliment you could ever give Foulke is he has eliminated any discussion of who should pitch the ninth. And, at the rate he's going, he's slowly but surely laying claim to the eighth inning as well. To have a closer who is that durable and that reliable calms the nerves of everyone behind him.

"It's a huge, huge weapon for us," Francona said. "When we set up our day, Wally [pitching coach Dave Wallace] and I try to figure out where guys fit, and knowing that Foulke can do so much makes our job that much easier. It also takes away the lefty-righty thing because his changeup is so effective against lefthanders. It's a big, big advantage to us."

No closer is perfect (see Rivera). Foulke, after all, was the Oakland reliever on the mound when Ortiz hit a two-run double in the bottom of the eighth in Game 4 of the 2003 Division Series to propel Boston to victory, and an eventual comeback from a 2-0 deficit in the best-of-five series. There could well come a time in this postseason when Foulke won't get the job done, but the beauty of his temperament, insists Francona, is the bad karma won't linger, and he will have moved on by the time he walks off the hill.

"I watched him on a couple of occasions [in Oakland] give up a lead, but have no intention of coming out of the game," said Francona, who was a bench coach with the Athletics in 2003. "He was going back out there to win the thing. That showed me a lot."

Foulke maintains he still hasn't pitched his best in October, and professes to have no preference for how long he's used, or in what situation.

"My feeling is my job never changes," Foulke said. "It doesn't matter if it's tied, we're down, or we're ahead. I've still got to go out and do the same thing, which is to get people out."

St. Louis manager Tony La Russa has been around long enough to remember when Foulke was a struggling postseason reliever with an 11.57 ERA for the Chicago White Sox. That, sports fans, was only four years ago.

"He's come a long way," said La Russa. "He's got a feel for pitching. That's what you hear about him. I think he kind of senses if a guy is looking in, away, looking for a changeup or whatever. He's smart. He moves his fastball around, and he's got a good changeup.

"If you're a reliever and you have one great pitch, you're good. If you have two, you're better. If you've got three, you're as good as there is."

If the Red Sox ask for any more, the closer says he's ready to deliver, for one or two or even three innings, if required. "I can pitch multiple innings," said Foulke. "I always have."

If that can't convince Francona to rest easy, nothing will. 

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