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Hole in the middle has created leaks

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / April 17, 2008

NEW YORK - Pitching early this season has been terrible.

And last night seemed to crystallize one of the biggest problems in major league baseball - middle relief.

The Yankees' 15-9 win over the Red Sox reinforced the notion that if you can bail out your starters now and then in the middle innings, you can pull out games you normally would lose. The Yankees did that. The Red Sox didn't.

In the American League, especially, most teams have two or three good starters, plus a decent closer and setup men. Most AL teams have good lineups. The quality of the middle men usually separates the good teams from the mediocre. If you have good middle relief, you don't trade it, which makes it hard to get without overpaying.

While LaTroy Hawkins turned in what Yankees manager Joe Girardi called "a great performance," Boston's Julian Tavarez and Mike Timlin allowed eight runs (seven earned) between them. If not for a decent outing by David Aardsma, who threw two scoreless innings, the Red Sox would have been chasing balls in the outfield into the wee hours of the morning.

Timlin was better than his line (four runs, three hits in one inning) would indicate. In the eighth, the Yankees hit balls off the end of the bat, bloopers that fell in, and it was one of those "what can you do?" outings. It came long after Tavarez had relinquished a 9-7 lead in the fifth. Of course, you don't need middle relievers unless your starters aren't doing the job. Lately, the Red Sox have suffered from mediocre starting pitching.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz (seven runs last night) haven't been that good in three of the last four games. While the bullpen had allowed only three runs in its previous 16 2/3 innings, last night didn't enhance anyone's stats.

With a young staff that includes two young starters, Lester and Buchholz, there's going to be inconsistency. The Yankees have already experienced that with Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy.

"We used our bullpen early and tonight we go to Tavarez and if he struggles, that's what happens because we don't have anywhere else to go," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "The other night, he didn't and we ended up pulling out a win. To do what we did against [Chien-Ming Wang, against whom the Sox took a 9-7 lead in the fifth] was great because we were in there early and we needed to stay away from some people.

"When every single pitcher does their job, we can still win like that. When we have a little bump in the road, then it's difficult."

Jason Varitek also stressed the need for starters to go longer, but last night's outing by Buchholz "didn't allow us to do that. We've got to find a way to extend our starters."

Timlin said he wasn't worried about his outing or that his numbers since his return from the disabled list (27.00 ERA) have been hideous.

"I threw the ball well today," he said. "The hits that I gave up, you couldn't have thrown them any better. What are you going to do?"

Asked whether the bullpen is overextended because of the starters' problems, Timlin said, "No, we're all right. I got horrible results. Great pitches. The only bad pitch that I threw was probably to Alex [Rodriguez, who hit a ground-rule double to left-center field]. He got extended on it. My ball was moving well. Ball moved well to Bobby [Abreu; strikeout]. Jammed [Jorge] Posada [two-run double to right]. [Jason] Giambi hit one off the end of the bat [two-run double to left]. I made the same two pitches to [Robinson] Cano and [Chad] Moeller - two popups. What are you going to do? I told a couple of guys here, if I threw another inning, I'd throw the same pitches. They were all quality pitches."

The abysmal middle relief made Hawkins look like a superstar because he was able to throw two scoreless innings and hold an 11-9 lead. Brian Bruney held on for the final 1 2/3 innings and spared Mariano Rivera from being used.

"I was just glad to be able to pitch well enough so Mariano could be saved tonight," said Bruney. "To hold that team down for four innings with that type of lineup - I thought that was huge for us. We had guys who did the job. LaTroy was excellent tonight."

The lone decent Sox start among the last four came from Tim Wakefield, who pitched a respectable six innings, allowing two runs, in Cleveland Tuesday. Even then, Javier Lopez and Manny Delcarmen struggled. Luckily for the Red Sox, the Cleveland bullpen struggled even more.

Pitchers are usually ahead of hitters early, but hitters are raking and embarrassing middle relievers throughout baseball. The Sox and Yankees are two patient teams who tend to wear down pitchers, but you see some of the worst pitches in some of the worst locations to some of the game's greatest hitters. It makes you wonder: Is pitching about as bad as it's been in a long time? The answer seems to be yes.

No matter how much you fortify your middle relief, the hope is you won't have to use it very often. Middle relievers are in that role because they're not good enough to close or start.

But if they're decent, they can allow the offense to make a bid and the late relievers to close it out.

Last night that formula didn't work.

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