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Hardball, but it could’ve been so much easier

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 1, 2012
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As well as things have been going for the Red Sox, Monday night was a good indication that things aren’t perfect.

When you’re ahead, 11-1, against the Oakland A’s, you shouldn’t have to use five relievers to protect that lead. But that’s what the Red Sox, winners of seven of their last eight games, were faced with after starter Clay Buchholz began to lose it.

Josh Reddick stroked a three-run homer in the seventh to pull the A’s to within five runs in Boston’s eventual 11-6 win.

Manager Bobby Valentine put a positive spin on it, saying that if the Sox were in the midst of a long stretch of consecutive games it might have been difficult to use so many relievers, including closer Alfredo Aceves in a non-save situation.

But Valentine said because there’s an off day Thursday, he didn’t worry as much that 1) Buchholz lost his rhythm and 2) Junichi Tazawa was unable to finish off the A’s in his mop-up role, creating the need to have to use a bunch of relievers.

Granted, Franklin Morales only faced one batter and induced a double-play grounder and Aceves had a stress-free ninth. Valentine said Aceves likes to work a lot and believes the more work he gets the sharper he is, but at some point you have to worry about too much use over the long haul.

The fact that Buchholz lost it so quickly after six very good innings leaves concern about the starter.

Tazawa had a three-inning save during the road trip, but his last two outings have been subpar, giving rise to speculation the he could be the one demoted to Pawtucket if Aaron Cook is activated today.

Red Sox starters have had a good run of late. Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Felix Doubront, and Daniel Bard all have had good outings. Buchholz’s outing against the weakest offense in the league in the A’s at least was encouraging for six innings.

But when you lead, 11-1, it’s tough to have to use up your bullpen.

It was one of those situations where the starter should go seven full innings at least and a mop-up guy should do the rest. But that didn’t happen Monday night.

With that in mind, a win is a win is a win.

At least the Red Sox continue to be an offensive force. David Ortiz mashed two homers, Mike Aviles knocked in four runs with a three-run homer and RBI single, and Darnell McDonald and Marlon Byrd drove in two runs apiece as the Red Sox put up double-digit runs for the seventh time this season.

It was a cold night at Fenway and the fact that the Sox beat up young lefty Oakland starter Tom Milone, who was sporting a 2.00 ERA, was noteworthy. The Sox didn’t end their last homestand so well, losing, 15-9, to the Yankees on that awful Saturday when they blew a 9-0 lead. So starting out with an 11-6 win at home, where they need to establish themselves as a force, was a good thing.

Sox middle men have been adventurous too often this season. They also almost blew a 7-1 lead against Minnesota on the road trip but held on for a 7-6 win.

As impressive as the bullpen was on the trip, there are aspects of the unit that remain scary.

Right now, Valentine can depend on Morales and Aceves. He seems to have growing faith in Vicente Padilla. Scott Atchison has had his ups and downs, as has Matt Albers. And Rich Hill, who returned to action Sunday, likely will get more time as he knocks some of the rust off his newly constructed left elbow.

Bullpen success is often a function of starting pitching success. The longer the starters go, the less likely it is that inferior relievers have to be used. But when you have a large lead, as the Red Sox did Monday night and as they did against the Yankees April 21, you need to be able to bring in those mop-up men to throw strikes and make sure the large lead isn’t squandered.

Things got uncomfortable while Oakland’s five-run seventh was in progress. The saving grace was that Oakland had struggled to score runs in its first 23 games, so the chances of some huge rally to overtake the Sox seemed unrealistic.

In the end it was.

If Cook joins the Red Sox, he may become the one who pitches in these situations and can finish off a game. The sinkerballer’s presence should help.

The Red Sox also may get someone such as Andrew Miller and/or Mark Melancon back from Pawtucket, who may be a better option in mop-up situations.

It’s always difficult for a team to mash the ball, build a big lead, then watch as the lead gets chipped away and suddenly be holding on for dear life. The easy night becomes hard. And then you start using your bullpen as if it’s a close game.

That was the only thing wrong with Monday’s game.

The easy night became a little tougher than it had to be.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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