FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Tedious sameness has become the theme here, where some mornings the manager doesn't know the opponent, only whether the game is home or away. But yesterday was a day of decision-making, or, at least, a day for announcing key decisions.
Terry Francona, at long last, revealed the makeup of his bullpen, and what matters is this: Jonathan Papelbon has been told he will pitch out of the pen, and Keith Foulke, who has yet to pitch in a game this spring, will get the ball Opening Day in Texas if the Red Sox have a lead entering the ninth.
''I do think Foulke deserves my confidence, because he has done it, and he's done it about as good as anybody in baseball," Francona said. ''I know the history of last year. But this isn't last year. What he can do is so good that if he comes out and gives up a home run and you just bail on him, we're losing somebody who can be so effective. We just need to try."
And so, Boston's 2006 bullpen, at least to begin the year, should look something like this: Foulke closing, Papelbon, Mike Timlin, Rudy Seánez, and Julián Tavárez working the seventh and eighth innings, and David Riske available to work the sixth. (Lenny DiNardo is likely to make the club, too, as a seventh reliever until April 12, when David Wells is expected to come off the disabled list and join the rotation.) On paper, it's dynamic, a night-and-day upgrade over what the Sox rolled out Opening Night in the Bronx last April.
Consider: The six men expected to constitute the relief corps, DiNardo not included, posted the following totals in 2005: 27-17, 3.21 ERA, 358 2/3 IP, 128 ER, 111 BBs, 306 K's, 35 HRs allowed. They fanned 7.68 batters per nine innings.
Boston's 2005 Opening Day bullpen (Foulke, Timlin, Alan Embree, Matt Mantei, Mike Myers, John Halama, and Blaine Neal), by comparison, posted the following totals in 2005: 20-21, 5.06 ERA, 329 1/3 IP, 185 ER, 118 BBs, 222 K's, 34 HRs allowed. They fanned 6.07 batters per nine innings.
The new additions (Seánez, Tavárez, and Riske) in 2005: 12-8, 3.05 ERA, 200 2/3 IP, 68 ER, 56 BBs, 179 K's, 21 HRs allowed. They fanned 8.03 batters per nine innings.
A year ago, the Sox bullpen was the worst in the American League, with a 5.15 ERA. This year, on paper, it stands to be among the best. But that statement ignores the results in Florida. Granted, results often don't matter here, but they are the only tangible basis for evaluation. And the reality is biting.
Seánez -- whose 12.5 K's per nine innings last season ranked third among major league relievers, behind only Houston's Brad Lidge and former Oriole turned Blue Jay B.J. Ryan -- has allowed eight runs on 13 hits in nine innings this spring. He's surrendered four home runs and has been hit at a .351 clip.
Riske has performed much like the pitcher Cleveland manager Eric Wedge lost confidence in last summer, when Riske's velocity and effectiveness dipped. He is 0-2 with an 11.57 ERA, having allowed 12 runs on 15 hits (including two homers) in 9 1/3 innings. Opponents are hitting .385 off the righthander who throws almost all fastballs around 90 miles per hour, getting away with that because of deceptive arm action.
Timlin, away at the World Baseball Classic, where his involvement was limited because of a fatigued arm, has pitched only one spring inning with the Sox. Tavárez, also away at the WBC, has pitched only one inning for the Sox. That isn't to suggest they are hurting or in any way doomed; they simply haven't pitched much to catcher Jason Varitek under their own coaches' eyes.
Papelbon has pitched a team-high 18 innings, allowing 20 hits and 11 earned runs, but he has yet to pitch out of the bullpen and will have to quickly acclimate to such a role. He worked five innings Wednesday night at Tampa and will be eased into the bullpen Monday or Tuesday.
Foulke, meanwhile, has yet to throw a pitch to a hitter in an actual game. He pitches in a minor league game today (''It will be interesting to see what his velocity is," Francona said), and possibly tomorrow against the Blue Jays, and then Monday against Tampa Bay. Asked yesterday if the closer's role is Foulke's job to lose, Francona said, ''I think it's his job to excel. I'd rather look at it that way, rather than to lose it. I don't think he views it that way. If I saw him shaking his head . . . I don't see that. I think he feels pretty good about himself."
That much can't be said at the moment about Riske or Seánez.
''David's had a tough spring," Francona said. ''Doesn't mean he's going to have a tough season. You look at him coming off the mound, and I think it's human nature. You kind of second-guess yourself a little bit. He'll get over it."
Riske was/is expected to be of real value in the middle innings, given his ability to pitch to both lefties and righties. Last year, the righthander was nearly as effective against lefties (.213) as he was against righties (.204). But, his confidence still might be low, after the way last season ended.
''The feeling in Cleveland I think was as he pitched later with a lead, he was giving up some more balls over the middle of the plate," Francona said earlier this spring.
This helps explain why Cleveland wanted to swap Riske for Guillermo Mota in the Coco Crisp-for-Andy Marte deal. The Indians knew if Bob Wickman faltered as closer, or got hurt, Mota's power stuff and mentality might make him a viable closing alternative, something Riske would not be.
Seánez, meanwhile, is coming off a career year, which he had at age 36 with San Diego. He established career highs in wins (7), appearances (57), innings (60 1/3) and strikeouts (84). His ERA was 2.69. Opponents hit just .222 off him. In 12 September appearances, with the Padres closing in on the NL West pennant, Seánez went 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA.
''Rudy is a power guy," Francona said. ''He's spent all spring trying to establish that fastball and get it where he wants it. When he throws strike 1 with that fastball, it opens up the whole plate for him and he can throw his offspeed stuff and pound the strike zone. And right now the majority of hitters are 1 and 0. They're spitting on a pitch they don't want and sitting on a fastball. He knows that."
This is where Papelbon comes in. ''When I say wild card in the bullpen I don't think that's a good term," Francona said. ''But put him in that bullpen, all of a sudden that bullpen looks a little different."
The Sox sat down with Papelbon Wednesday night and explained how they would use him and why they wanted him in the bullpen. They told him he can come in with the bases loaded and get a crucial strikeout (''he can throttle it up a little bit," Francona said). They told him he can pitch multiple innings. And they told him they want him in a role that won't change, so as to give him -- and the team -- stability.
''We don't want to start bouncing him," Francona said. ''We told him, if we need a spot start a month into the season, we're not going to do that to him.
''He's good. He's a smart kid. We explained why. He kind of gave you the reason you were looking for. He said, 'I just want to win.' I wanted to make sure he understood this is not a demotion.
''Last year, having very minimal major league experience, we were very comfortable getting him in the game. And we will be that way again."