DETROIT — The Red Sox bullpen was weakened when record-setting closer Jonathan Papelbon fled to Philadelphia as a free agent. Then reliable set-up man Daniel Bard was moved into the rotation.
When new closer Andrew Bailey was lost to a thumb injury on the eve of the season, transition turned into turmoil as those relievers further down the line were pressed into more vital roles.
As Ben Cherington said on Wednesday, the loss of Bailey is felt perhaps more by what it means for the rest of the bullpen.
The ripple effect swamped the Red Sox today as the bullpen allowed two runs in the final two innings in a 3-2 loss against the Detroit Tigers.
After Jon Lester allowed one run over seven innings, four Red Sox relievers faced 10 Tigers batters. Six reached base.
In Pittsburgh, Papelbon threw a perfect inning for his first save with the Phillies. Bard watched the game from the dugout, waiting for his start on Tuesday in Toronto.
Bobby Valentine was left having to defend how he used the bullpen.
“We had an elusive couple of outs there,” he said.
Valentine called on Mark Melancon to start the bottom of the ninth inning of a 2-2 game. He got an out before giving up singles by Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila.
“With the righthanders coming up, I didn’t think there was any reason Mark couldn’t start that inning,” Valentine said.
With runners at first and second, Valentine called in newly minted closer Alfredo Aceves. Melancon, who had 20 saves for Houston last season, was surprised.
"Yeah it felt a little quick,” he said. “But that's not my job. My job is to get outs.”
Said Valentine: “It’s a tie game on the road, so Melancon is going to try and get us the inning out and soon as it got to be a jeopardy situation I wanted to try and close the door with the last guy who’s going to really be the closer.”
Aceves, who worked as a starter throughout spring training, pushed Ramon Santiago off the plate with a 0-1 fastball. That had him set up for a curveball.
But catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia missed the ball as it drifted inside and it struck Santiago on his back foot to load the bases.
“I missed my spot,” Aceves said.
Valentine thought Santiago had swung at the ball — a notion backed by replays — and briefly asked umpire Dale Scott to clarify what had happened.
“Ace threw a pretty good pitch that got by the catcher and hit the guy in the foot I guess,” Valentine said. “He didn’t swing at that ball, huh?”
Austin Jackson then hit a hard grounder down the third base line, well out of the reach of Nick Punto, to win the game.
“A great feeling,” said Jackson after what he said was the first walk-off hit of his career.
Conventional baseball wisdom says not to use your closer in a tie game on the road. But Valentine defended the move, pointing out the Aceves’ versatility would have made him available for the 10th inning had he escaped the jam.
Aceves is hardly a conventional closer. Given his history in relief and the fact that he had been stretched out in spring training, he was good for two innings.
Aceves had no problem with it.
“No. The manager has his own decision,” he said. “We have to be out there ready for him … that’s the way I think. Always we have the communication with our bullpen coach and the coach on the bench. We were on the same page.”
The bullpen also failed the Red Sox in the eighth inning. Veteran Vicente Padilla, a reluctant reliever, started the inning and allowed a triple by Jackson. Ryan Sweeney got turned around on the ball, which went to the wall.
With the infield in, Brennan Boesch grounded to short and Jackson had to hold. Miguel Cabrera was intentionally walked.
In came lefty Franklin Morales to face Prince Fielder. He hit a shallow fly ball to center. Jacoby Ellsbury broke in and was lined up to make a good throw. But it was weak and Jackson scored without a play.
The Red Sox have a powerful offense and what could be a very effective rotation. It's only one game, but this bullpen is not one that inspires much confidence. Of the eight pitchers, who do you trust?
There's Aceves and there's ... well ....
Melancon, who has been traded twice and flourished at low-pressure Houston, can't be put on the trustworthy list yet. Franklin Morales is more potential than production at this point. Albers? Atchison? Bowden? Padilla? Thomas?
Rich Hill is making strides. He can help. But they may need more than that.