TORONTO -- Given the level of radioactivity all season, it's hard to imagine the Red Sox bullpen could become even more unstable at this stage of the season. But Terry Francona's decision to use his closer, Mike Timlin, in the seventh inning Monday night came as a surprise to Timlin and was upsetting to Timlin's fellow relievers, according to lefthander Mike Myers.
''There was a lot of scratching of heads down there," Myers said before last night's 9-3 loss to the Blue Jays, which cut the Sox' lead over the Yankees to 2 1/2 games in the AL East. ''No one had any pre-warning of what was going on. They've got three lefties in a row coming up and I don't get up. You put [Keith] Foulke in there, then you bring in Timlin, who hasn't seen the seventh inning in a long time without letting him know early on that you're going to do this?
''I know they've said before that they would bring him in any time, but there were times where they could have done it and they didn't, and all of a sudden now you do? Everybody was shocked down there, trying to figure out what was going on.
''With Mike doing well in the ninth inning, and having [Jonathan] Papelbon down there to set up, it was very shocking for everybody."
Another distressing outing by Foulke last night -- an excruciating seventh inning in which he threw just 11 of 27 pitches for strikes -- offered further evidence that he will not be the man to bring order to the most unsettled corner of the Sox universe.
''We're trying so hard to get him where he wants to be," Francona said of Foulke, who entered with the Sox trailing, 6-3, and left trailing, 8-3, with yet another damaging error by shortstop Edgar Renteria prolonging the agony. ''He's trying so hard. We rode his back so many times [last season] that we'll do this together. As bad as it is for him, we're there for him and we're going to try to get this right."
In the winners' clubhouse, Blue Jays veteran Frank Catalanotto offered a familiar explanation for Foulke's struggles, saying that his velocity was down, which makes his changeup less effective.
''His velocity is down, and tonight he had trouble throwing strikes and hitting his spots," Catalanotto said. ''I don't know why. Maybe he's having arm problems. I don't know. Earlier in the season, his velocity was down quite a bit. Now he seems like he's throwing a little bit better. I don't know, I think he'll wind up being effective because he's been in the league a while."
Francona's decisions Monday night became a hot-button topic after the Sox, ahead by five runs entering the seventh, allowed the Jays to tie the score, Timlin giving up a three-run home run to Vernon Wells to make it five apiece. The Sox eventually won, 6-5, on David Ortiz's 11th-inning home run, and rookie Papelbon pitched the final three innings to register his first big-league win.
''Papelbon's got great stuff -- serious, serious potential," Timlin said yesterday. ''I don't think they really look at him as a relief pitcher at all. He'll be a starter. His upside is tremendous. He's got a good head on his shoulders, he asks good questions, puts information together and uses it. For a young kid it's rare, but it can be done."
Francona explained afterward that he elected to use Foulke instead of Myers against Toronto's lefthanders because he did not want Blue Jays manager John Gibbons to counter with righthanded pinch hitter Reed Johnson, who hit two late-inning home runs against the Sox bullpen in May, and a pinch grand slam off Myers in Fenway Park July 1. Once the score became 5-2 against Foulke, Francona said, he wasn't going to let Foulke face Wells, Toronto's best hitter.
''We won't sit and wait for a perfect save situation -- we're trying to win a game," Francona said. ''Mike's a pro. He wants to pitch with the game on the line right there. It didn't work out, but it will work out many more times than it doesn't."
It's an unconventional approach, bringing your closer into a game in the seventh inning, but it is consistent with a philosophy espoused by Sox senior adviser/statistical analyst Bill James and embraced by general manager Theo Epstein and Francona: Use your best reliever to snuff out a rally when he is most needed, regardless of the inning. The Sox tried the so-called ''closer by committee" approach in 2003 with disastrous results, but the organization believed -- and still believes -- that the theory was sound, the execution bad.
That offseason, Epstein made the acquisition of a closer a top priority, and signed Foulke to a long-term deal. Foulke's appeal stemmed in part from his ability not only to get the last three outs of a game, but to pitch the eighth inning as well. Last year, Foulke registered 10 regular-season saves in which he pitched more than an inning, and six of his 11 appearances in a fabulous postseason went beyond an inning, including one 2 2/3-inning stint against the Yankees in the ALCS.
But with Foulke a faint facsimile of himself and unlikely to reclaim his former role for the balance of this season, the burden has fallen squarely on Timlin. Installed as closer when Curt Schilling returned to the rotation, Timlin had done well. He has seven saves, his most since combining for a dozen for the Orioles and Cardinals in 2000.
The home run he gave up Monday night was only the second he has allowed this season, and both have come here. Johnson took him deep back in May.
''Yeah, I was kind of surprised," Timlin said of being summoned in the seventh, ''but they've said they were going to use me whenever. Terry felt that was the crucial part of the game. I just missed my spot. I threw him a couple of cutters away, then threw a four-seamer [fastball] right down the middle."
Asked if using him in that fashion can work, Timlin said, ''It has to. You've got to be able to do your role when you're called on, whether you're called in the sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth."
Timlin said he hasn't altered his routine since becoming closer. ''I've already got my mental thing going. I stretch in the fifth, I haven't altered my game plan any, I still do my same routine in the same innings as when I was pitching the seventh and eighth, so nothing's really changed for me."
Timlin shook off the suggestion that he was being diplomatic.
''I don't know about being diplomatic," he said. ''Everybody keeps saying, 'You're the closer, you're the closer.' Yeah, I'm the closer, but I'm just bridging this. The way I look at it, I'm the bridge until we get Foulke back."
But Foulke isn't likely to be coming back, not like Foulke.
''Then I'm the bridge until whenever," Timlin said. ''I'll do what I can. I want this team to win. I've been to the World Series three times. There are guys here who haven't been to the World Series. It's like a gift from me, if I can do my part to get this team to the World Series and let other guys experience it."