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A ‘Big Three’ in Sox bullpen

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 13, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — The best piece of bullpen management Terry Francona will do all year may have come while he was wearing a tuxedo in the Boston Public Library on the evening of Jan. 15.

During his daughter’s wedding reception, the Red Sox manager placed a hand on the shoulder of Jonathan Papelbon and said, “You realize you’re my closer, right?’’

“Yes, sir,’’ Papelbon said.

That brief exchange became necessary after the Red Sox turned one of the worst bullpens in the American League last season into what could be the best.

General manager Theo Epstein used blunt force on the glaring problem, signing former White Sox closer and two-time All-Star Bobby Jenks to pitch behind Papelbon. It cost the Red Sox $12 million over two years to get Jenks to change jobs.

Having Jenks pitch the seventh or eighth inning is the baseball version of hiring a chef away from Abe & Louie’s to grill a hamburger. It’s overkill, but the results should be tasty.

In Papelbon, Jenks, and incumbent set-up man Daniel Bard, the Sox now have three of the best relievers in baseball sharing a bullpen bench. According to the PitchFx data available at Fangraphs.com, Bard averaged 97.8 miles per hour with his fastball last season, Jenks 94.9, and Papelbon 94.7.

“How many closers do they have there?’’ said Tampa Bay outfielder Johnny Damon. “You have Bard, you have Jenks, and you have Papelbon. That’s pretty solid. They can shorten a game pretty quickly.’’

Now that Epstein has done his job, it’s up to Francona to make it work. The first step was to reassure Papelbon that while the roster has three closer types, he had the actual job.

The wedding provided a perfect opportunity.

“Tito didn’t have to say that,’’ said Papelbon. “But I’m glad he did. He has always been good about letting everybody know where they stand. That helps.’’

Papelbon was part of the problem in 2010, blowing eight saves and posting the highest ERA of his career at 3.90. He also had career highs in home runs allowed (7), walks (28), and wild pitches (4).

Before they offered Papelbon salary arbitration Dec. 2, the Red Sox made a serious offer to free agent Mariano Rivera, so serious that the Yankees were forced to double their initial proposal to satisfy their legendary closer.

Had Rivera accepted, the Sox were prepared to release Papelbon. Instead, they signed Jenks to lessen his burden.

Papelbon’s response has been better than could have been anticipated. He arrived at training camp a week before pitchers and catchers were due and voiced only support for the addition of Jenks.

Papelbon will be a free agent after this season, a status he has long looked forward to, having turned down several opportunities to sign a long-term deal with the Red Sox.

A return to All-Star form could be lucrative for the 30-year-old, given the riches lavished on relievers over the winter. If that motivates him to be successful, the Sox will happily wish Papelbon well should he choose to leave.

“He seems focused, maybe more than usual,’’ Bard said. “He’s been working hard. Nothing too different, but he knows there’s a lot on the line.

“I think he’s focused on winning this year and at the same time his contract is up. That’s no secret. If anything, that’s going to help him.’’

A changeup by Jenks The true test will come if Papelbon goes through a rough stretch and calls come for Jenks to replace him. But that sentiment will not come from the 275-pound righthander. Jenks has arms covered in tattoos, a shaved head, and a beard that looks like a blond waterfall tumbling off his chin. His ego, however, has been stored away.

“It was something I had to think about coming here,’’ he said. “You sometimes have to set aside some selfish things to be on a championship team.

“If Pap has problems, me being the closer might come up. But when it happens, you have to stick together. I didn’t come here to try and take his job. I came here to win a championship in whatever role that will be.’’

That Jenks now speaks with such temperance would come as a surprise to those who knew him at the start of his career.

Jenks was academically ineligible to pitch at his high school in Spirit Lake, Idaho, and was spotted by scouts playing American Legion ball. The Angels took him in the fifth round of the 2000 draft but released him four years later following a series of incidents that included alcohol-fueled fights with teammates.

The White Sox signed Jenks and promoted him to the majors after only 35 games. He flourished in Chicago, recording the final out of the 2005 World Series.

Since 2006, only Papelbon (188) and Rivera (180) have more saves in the American League than Jenks (167).

Jenks became available after what for him was a mediocre 2010 season, compounded when he missed the final month with nerve damage in his elbow that has since subsided.

He also had a stormy relationship with manager Ozzie Guillen that grew worse once he left the team. The two traded jabs through the media early in spring training before Francona stepped in.

Jenks has been quiet since. But in unguarded moments, that edge emerges. While he may not want Papelbon’s job, that doesn’t mean he won’t try to outperform him. Bard, too.

“Maybe we won’t want to admit it, but there will be competitiveness,’’ said Jenks. “That is probably pretty standard for three guys like us. We’re pretty fortunate to be together. But we’re going to push each other.’’

Best of the bunch? A Papelbon/Jenks debate would capture Boston’s attention. But it also might be academic, given the possibility of Bard blossoming into the best reliever in the game.

“He has the best arm on that team,’’ said a National League scout. “He looks like he’s at a church picnic out there, all calm. And then his ball is on top of you.’’

Said Jenks, “He’s about to take off. You can see it.’’

The 25-year-old had a 1.00 WHIP last season and averaged 10 strikeouts per nine innings. That he was not the closer benefited the Red Sox, as Francona was free to use Bard when the game was in doubt, not merely to earn saves.

“There’s no secret: When the game’s on the line and if he’s rested, we want Bard to pitch,’’ said Francona. “That’s a weapon. I think he knows we want him in there. His role is to pitch with the game on the line. That’s what we want.’’

That confidence earned Bard’s loyalty.

“Tito is faithful to his players, almost to a fault,’’ said Bard. “With all of us, we’re stuck in those roles pretty securely. I like it. I know what to expect.

“In ’09, when I was a rookie, I struggled in the beginning of August. We had [Billy] Wagner at the time and I still had those late-inning opportunities. Nothing really changed. That really meant a lot to me.’’

Bard would like to be a closer someday, if not a starter. For now, he is content to pitch when called on.

“It’s not something that if I pitch great, I’m going to be able to take over,’’ he said. “I want Pap to do well. If he does well, the team does well. If I do well, it’s going to give him more save opportunities.

“There’s no hint of anything between the three of us. Jenks seems like a great guy and Pap and I have gotten along well the last two years.

“There were a couple of times last year Pap blew back-to-back games. It’s hard when a closer or a guy in my role screws up because we lose the game. You can’t ignore that. It’s glaring. But when somebody has a track record like Pap, you keep giving him chances.’’

As thrilled as Francona was with the trade for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and the signing of left fielder Carl Crawford, he never stopped prodding Epstein about the bullpen.

The Red Sox lost eight games when leading after seven innings last year. The stink of those games lingered.

“Good teams don’t lose a lot of games late,’’ Francona said. “That’s a tough way to play. You look at good teams; they lock down wins. You want that feeling of confidence that when you go into the eighth inning with a lead, you’re going to win. You want that feeling of invincibility.

“I think we realize the importance of having a good bullpen. When we’ve had a good team, we’ve had a good bullpen.’’

That starts with Papelbon, Jenks, and Bard. More precisely, it ends with them.

“All you want is a chance to be great,’’ Papelbon said. “We have that chance. I’m glad the three of us are together.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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