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Striking turnaround for Sox bullpen

After early woes, relief is in sight

Alfredo Aceves was pumped after getting the Rays in order in the ninth to earn his second save. Alfredo Aceves was pumped after getting the Rays in order in the ninth to earn his second save. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / April 16, 2012
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At the beginning of the season, the back end of the Red Sox bullpen seemed to be in a state of flux when projected closer Andrew Bailey was put on the disabled list to undergo surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb.

It raised serious doubts about the bullpen’s roles. There was no clear-cut chain of relief, which caused great consternation among Red Sox Nation when the team stumbled out of the gate 1-5, including a wrenching 13-12 loss in 11 innings at Detroit a week ago in which the bullpen had two blown saves.

But the group seemed to sort itself out in a 6-4 victory Sunday over the Tampa Bay Rays before 38,024 at Fenway Park with Vicente Padilla picking up the win, Franklin Morales earning a hold, and Alfredo Aceves picking up his second save.

Aceves made his first ninth-inning appearance of the season at Fenway to the accompaniment of “Iberia Sumergida,’’ a jarring Spanish rock song by Heroes del Silencio.

The Dropkick Murphys’ “Shipping Up To Boston,’’ it was not.

Asked if he was becoming more comfortable with his newfound role, Aceves, who was adamant about being a starter during spring training, said tersely, “Not comfortable. Never.’’

Was it because he wanted to avoid becoming complacent? “No, I don’t even like [it],’’ he said. “I feel like I’m hungry, bro. I feel like I am hungry, that’s all I can say.’’

In his first two games, Aceves allowed three runs on four hits with no walks or strikeouts, but in his last three he has shown marked improvement, throwing three scoreless innings of relief with three strikeouts.

“Aceves is a very competitive pitcher, everyone knows that,’’ Morales said. “He’s someone just like me who wants to win no matter what and who wants to do his best.

“I think he’s one of the better pitchers we have in the bullpen. With the confidence we all have in him, I think the team is going to be fine.’’

With former closer Jonathan Papelbon having shipped down to the City of Brotherly Love to close for the Phillies, it was clear the back end of Boston’s bullpen was in the midst of an extreme makeover.

“I don’t think anything’s set in concrete,’’ said manager Bobby Valentine, when asked about the bullpen roles. “But I’m confident in the guys who are coming out of the bullpen. They’re pitching great. Vicente, Morales, and Aceves look like they’re setting up pretty nicely.’’

Padilla pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings and struck out two to earn his eighth career victory in relief. Morales, meanwhile, earned his second hold with a scoreless eighth, and Aceves got his second save in three tries when he punctuated a 1-2-3 ninth with an emphatic game-ending strikeout of Ben Zobrist.

“We all take the same positive mental approach when we go out there,’’ said Morales. “We’re trying to win games and do our best for the team. We’re like a family. We always talk about a lot of things, about how to attack batters and things like that. Those are all important because we’re one as a group.’’

There’s been nothing muddled about the bullpen against the Rays. In the first three games of the series, the bullpen has allowed just one run over seven innings.

“Our bullpen has been awesome,’’ said designated hitter David Ortiz. “It was just a matter of time, man.

“You see people normally going crazy after six games when we have to play 162. You’re going to have tough times and you’re going to have good times and you got to make adjustments. When you’re a good player, you’re going to be OK. That’s what I believe.’’

Though he got the win, Padilla felt Felix Doubront pitched well enough to earn his first victory as a Sox starter after allowing four runs on nine hits and one walk in five-plus innings while ringing up a career-high seven strikeouts.

“He did a tremendous job,’’ Padilla said. “He pitched well but they turned it around against him and that’s just part of the game, but he did a good job for the first four, five innings and had about seven strikeouts, so you can imagine what a good job he did.’’

As for Padilla? The journeyman reliever toughed it out when he got hit on his right calf by Zobrist’s comebacker with one on in the seventh.

The ball ricocheted off his leg toward first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who was able to get the lead runner at second. Padilla was unable to get to first in time to try for the double play.

“I was a bit surprised when the ball hit me because I didn’t know if it was going to go to second or to first, that’s why I couldn’t get to first,’’ said Padilla, who indicated he felt fine afterward. “But when you’re in the heat of the game, you’re just thinking about playing. In that moment, I wanted to keep pitching. When I came out, that’s when I could feel it.’’

Morales took over for Padilla in the eighth and retired the first batter he faced before allowing a pair of singles to left to put the go-ahead runs aboard for Desmond Jennings. But he got Jennings on a fly to left, and Carlos Pena grounded to short. Aceves then came on in the ninth.

When asked about the development of the back end of the bullpen, Valentine said, “We’ll see. It’s a developing situation. I like what I see.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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