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Tony Massarotti

Lefthander could right the bullpen

By Tony Massarotti
July 17, 2009
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Call me crazy, but on some level I think the Red Sox actually miss Javier Lopez in their bullpen.

The Sox, who own the best record in the American League, will open the second half of the season tonight in Toronto. Clay Buchholz will get the start. Behind him, manager Terry Francona will begin the most critical games of the year with a relief corps that recently has shown signs of cracking, particularly in blowing leads of 10-1 (to the Orioles June 30) and 4-0 (to the Royals July 9) during the final two weeks of the first half.

Statistical aberration? Or a worrisome sign of things to come?

Now, nobody is saying that the Sox’ bullpen is a problem. The question is whether they can do anything to improve a group that was darn-near perfect as recently as two weeks ago. In 2007, as the Red Sox methodically marched toward another world title, Francona noted the considerable value, for any team, of winning the games “you’re supposed to win.’’ Francona was not speaking about beating inferior opponents so much as he was speaking of protecting late-inning leads - particularly those of multiple runs - something the Sox did with great efficiency during the first half of that season, thanks largely to the unexpected emergence of Hideki Okajima.

So far this year, the Sox are a sterling 43-2 when leading after six innings, though that record does not include the meltdown against the Royals, when the bullpen failed to hold a 5-3 lead in the sixth inning. The losses include 3-2 to the Mets May 23 - Jonathan Papelbon’s first of two blown saves on the season - and the infamous debacle at Baltimore, which ultimately produced Papelbon’s second blown save.

Papelbon is not the concern here, even if he has seemed more mortal this season than during his first three years as the Sox’ closer. From 2006-08, Papelbon blew an average of 4.5 saves per season - about two per half. In 2007, he blew three all year. Since the start of the 2006 season, his save percentage ranks fourth best in baseball behind only Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, and Francisco Rodriguez, a group widely regarded as the best closers in baseball.

So long as the Red Sox are giving Papelbon save opportunities, they’ll happily take their chances. He’s right there with the best.

This year, more than any other in recent memory, the Red Sox have uncommon bullpen depth, making them almost as dominating in the middle innings as they have been late in games. Against Baltimore and Kansas City, the most significant damage was done against Justin Masterson and Manny Delcarmen, both of whom are effectively middle relievers. To this point, Delcarmen’s inability to pitch late in games has relegated him to duty mostly in the sixth or seventh innings; in Masterson’s case, his inability to handle lefthanded batters means Francona must pick his spots with him.

As much of an oddity as the Baltimore game may have been, let’s look at the specifics: Against Masterson and Delcarmen, lefthanded batters in that game went 4 for 9. Roughly 10 days later, against the same pair of relievers in the KC meltdown, lefties went 3 for 4, bringing the total to 7 for 13 (a .538 average) with four extra-base hits (three doubles, one homer). Though Delcarmen’s failures were unusual - thanks to an effective changeup, he actually has been better against lefties than righties during his career - Masterson’s difficulties have been an issue since he first reached the major leagues. This season, lefthanded batters are hitting .317 with an .864 OPS against him.

So, why was he in the games at all? Because the Red Sox had sizable leads at the time, and because a young pitcher like Masterson needs to face lefties at some point if the Sox want him to improve. Beyond that, utilizing someone like Okajima against lefties in the middle innings would strip Francona of one of his more effective setup men in the seventh or eighth, potentially making Boston even more vulnerable.

This brings us back to Lopez, who enjoyed a fine season as the Sox’ lefthanded specialist in 2008. Last year, Lopez limited lefties to a .182 average in 70 appearances, posting a 2.43 ERA in the process. The early-season plan this year was to have Lopez in the same role, at least until lefties belted him at a .429 clip (with a 1.110 OPS) and ushered him back to the minor leagues, where he has since posted a 4.20 ERA in 16 games. Triple A lefties are hitting .296 against him.

With Lopez gone, the Sox subsequently turned to lefthander Hunter Jones and, later, righthander Daniel Bard, the latter of whom is seemingly being groomed to be Papelbon’s successor someday. That has made Okajima the sole lefty in the Boston bullpen, leaving Francona without a matchup specialist for the sixth and seventh innings. Last season, of the 218 plate appearances against Lopez, 130 came in the sixth or seventh innings.

With roughly two weeks remaining before the July 31 trading deadline, the Red Sox appear to have a need for another lefty in their bullpen, something at least one Sox official privately has acknowledged. The problem is that two lefties are a luxury that many teams covet and few possess, particularly in a world where lefthanded pitching already is at a premium. And so, the Sox are likely to go with only one lefty (Okajima) until at least Sept. 1, when roster expansion will allow them to summon at least one specialist from a group that includes Lopez.

Then, depending on what the Sox get from the spot, an already good Boston bullpen could get even better.

Tony Massarotti can be reached at tmassarotti@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti

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