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Sox bullpen is the brains of the operation

Has there ever been a more intelligent bullpen in baseball?

Well, Mike Marshall, who won the National League Cy Young Award for the Dodgers in 1974, held three degrees from Michigan State, including a PhD in kinesiology.

But he couldn't keep the kind of company you find these days in the Red Sox bullpen. Lefthander Craig Breslow has a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale, while teammate Javier Lopez has a degree in psychology from the University of Virginia.

``Don't forget our bullpen catcher, Jason Larocque," Jonathan Papelbon said. ``He went to Harvard."

Indeed, Larocque, whose first job with the Red Sox was as a scouting intern for Wayne Britton back in the Dan Duquette days, graduated with a degree in government.

Lopez's wife, Renee, meanwhile, a former soccer player at Virginia, is working on her PhD in counseling psychology from the University of Tennessee, and currently is serving an internship at a counseling center connected to the athletic department at Texas A&M. Her area of interest is not performance enhancement counseling, but helping athletes with life stresses.

``Then you got me," said Papelbon, ``who's a [expletive] genius."

Hey, Papelbon is a college boy, too. He went to Mississippi State, where his major was educational psychology. And Craig Hansen is just a year removed from St. John's University, his education interrupted when the Sox drafted him on the first round in 2004.

Bullpens are legendary for their shenanigans. It might come as a surprise to learn that Moe Drabowsky, arguably the king of the bullpen pranksters, was from the liberal arts school Trinity College in Connecticut, alma mater of legendary sports columnist Jim Murray. Drabowsky was famous for slipping an M-80 into the bathroom stall of an unsuspecting teammate, lighting hotfoots, carrying around live snakes, stocking the bullpen water supply with goldfish, and on one occasion, conducting a mock funeral of a teammate, which was a great hoot for everyone involved until the center field camera picked it up, much to the ire of the GM of the club. Drabowsky, a stockbroker, also would use the bullpen phone to get an outside line and check on stock prices.

With the fans in such proximity to the bullpens, as at Fenway Park, relievers are often inclined to engage spectators in banter, though there hasn't been a situation odder in recent years than Papelbon's exchange last summer with a fan who hurled his prosthetic leg into the pen, asking for an autograph.

So it should be understood that smart guys and having fun are not mutually exclusive in baseball. At the same time, Lopez acknowledges that the level of conversation in the Sox bullpen tends to transcend the usual concerns of Jockworld.

``I don't think there's ever a day where we're not talking about something, no matter how random it might be," Lopez said. ``With those guys and their higher learning, so to speak, it's fun to hear their insight on certain topics.

``The other night we were talking about what people might believe in, whether its psychics or religion, just bouncing ideas off each other. Usually it's something that we might see in the paper that'll be discussed.

``We're not solving the world's problems, that's for sure. But we bounce things off each other, which is fun."

A problem that neither Lopez nor Breslow resolved to the Sox' satisfaction this season was the presence of a dependable lefthander in the bullpen. Breslow began the season in the minors, and Lopez, a submariner, did not come over until mid-June, when he was acquired from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for David Riske. The Sox began the season operating under the premise that they could survive without a lefthander; in Theo Epstein's first three seasons as GM, the Sox had a lefthander in the pen who made at least 65 appearances: Alan Embree appeared in 65 games in '03 and 71 in 2004, and Mike Myers made 65 appearances in 2005.

Lopez, who was credited with his first win with the Red Sox in the second game of Sunday's doubleheader sweep over the Yankees, leads Sox lefty relievers with just 22 appearances, as he was shuttled back and forth from Pawtucket four times in 2 1/2 months.

Lopez is 1-0 with a save and 3.38 ERA, but one of his shortcomings has been control. In Fenway Park, for example, Lopez has a 1.17 ERA in 11 appearances, but he has walked 7 in just 7 2/3 innings while giving up six hits. A lefthanded reliever, especially a situational lefty who may be called upon to face just one batter, can't be walking hitters at that rate.

Lopez, a native of Puerto Rico who turned 29 in July, has had stretches of considerable success. In 2003, when he was with Colorado, he was the first big-league reliever since 1980 to allow three runs or fewer, total, in his first 30 appearances.

Lopez, who is arbitration-eligible, said the Sox have not discussed with him whether they want him back next season.

``I definitely want to come back," he said. ``They've given Craig and I a showcase to show what we can do. Hopefully we'll throw well."

As for being labeled the brains of the bunch, which often is something less than a badge of honor in the big leagues?

Lopez, who was elected Colorado's union representative while he was there, smiled.

``If you have insecurities," he said, ``I don't know if baseball is your game."

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