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Good to the last chop

Posted by Adam Kilgore, Globe Staff  April 15, 2009 04:08 AM

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OAKLAND, Calif. – His coaches had warned Justin Masterson they didn’t know exactly how much or for how long they could count on Daisuke Matsuzaka last night. When the game began and Masterson took his seat in foul territory along the rightfield line, he knew he would be the first reliever called upon. “Be ready,” they had told him.

Masterson had risen from his seat and started throwing warm-up pitches before the latecomers had found their seats at Oakland Coliseum. He took over in the second inning and started an epic performance by Boston’s bullpen. Five Red Sox relievers combined to pitch the equivalent of a 10-inning shutout with 12 strikeouts, a feat that kept the Red Sox in the game despite Matsuzaka’s one-inning meltdown.

In the end, the bullpen that pitched so well was undone by one of their own. Javier Lopez, pitching for the third straight day, walked the bases loaded and gave up a two-out, infield-chopper single to Travis Buck to snap the bullpen’s scoreless streak and give the Oakland A’s a 6-5 victory in the 12th inning. The bitter end overshadowed, but could not diminish, the bullpen’s work.

Manny Delcarmen struck out three in 1 2/3 innings. Ramon Ramirez pitched 1 1/3 innings, then volunteered to go back out for another inning, but was held back by manager Terry Francona. Hideki Okajima allowed one base runner over two innings and struck out two. Jonathan Papelbon stormed through one inning in 15 pitches.

By the end, the bullpen had been so exhausted that the Red Sox may bring a pitcher from their minor league system up to assist the depleted staff.

“Our bullpen did a great job,” manager Terry Francona said. “Everybody. To get us to that point, they’re not just facing one, two, or three hitters. They’re going a couple innings.”

Masterson climbed the mound having known little success this season. He had surrendered runs in both of his outings, and Friday he had given up three runs on four hits in just one inning.

Last night, he altered the bad habits that befell him. He carried out his delivery under control, never over-rotating with his upper body. His sinker dipped and his slider bit. He overpowered and baffled the A’s, striking out six and allowing two hits and no walks. He threw 60 pitches – 42 strikes – and felt nearly as strong on the 60th as he did the first.

“That’s some kind of effort,” Francona said. “If he doesn’t do that, we’re not in a position to even have a chance to win that game. He pitched his heart out.”

With Matsuzaka’s healthy in question, Masterson may receive a chance to make his second career major league start. The Red Sox brought Masterson along on a starter’s schedule this spring, and he still feels able to handle a starter’s workload.

“If it’s something that’s needed, of course,” Masterson said. “I think so. Having gone through that routine if needed, I’d be ready for that, if necessary.”

For last night, he ran the first and most lengthy leg of a flawless relay – he passed the baton to Delcarmen, who ceded to Ramirez, who ceded to Okajima, who ceded to Papelbon. Not once against any of them did a runner advance past second base.

Papelbon recovered from his testing, 39-pitch save Saturday with a 1-2-3 11th inning. He would have pitched the 12th if the Red Sox had taken the lead in their half of the inning. “As much as you kind of wrestle with sending him out,” Francona said, “I know it’s not the right thing to do.”

So on came Lopez, who had pitched twice in two days. “That’s tough duty,” Francona said. “We didn’t have a choice.”

Takashi Satio had yet to pitch back-to-back days with the Red Sox because of offseason elbow surgery, and Francona believed it wouldn’t have been fair to ask him to do so last night. Lopez would have pitched until the game or his arm threatened to fall off his shoulder. “That’s not a fun situation to be in,” Francona said. But Lopez, even after sitting in cold and brutal wind for more than four hours, said he felt ready as his adrenaline surged.

“Guys were doing a hell of a job pitching in the bullpen,” Lopez said. “I was just trying to keep up with that.”

Lopez walked Jason Giambi, a lefty, the kind of the batter Lopez specializes in sending back to the dugout, to lead off the inning. He had committed a cardinal sin. “Giving those free passes in extra innings isn’t exactly a way to get success,” he said.

Still, Lopez thought he force Matt Holliday to hit a ground ball have the infield turn a double play. Holliday bounced a ball softly up the middle, but it bounced to high for shortstop Gil Velazquez to make a play at second. The dirt in front of home plate seemed awfully hard to Lopez.

Lopez walked the next two hitters, loading the bases with one out. The game seemed certain to end until he struck out Kurt Suzuki on three pitches. Up came Travis Buck. Lopez got him to hit a ground ball, just like he wanted. “That’s what I do,” Lopez said.

But as soon as Buck hit it, Lopez knew. Trouble. Buck had chopped the ball like Holliday had, but harder. The ball arced into the air. Dustin Pedroia charged and whipped a throw. Buck, a lefthander, beat the ball by half a step. Like that, nearly 10 innings of sterling relief unraveled.

“Bang-bang play goes against you,” Francona said. “You lose.”

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