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Sox pitchers just keep on comin'

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  April 7, 2009 08:52 PM

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For the last several years, offense generally has ruled in Boston. The Red Sox sought to make opposing pitchers work. They talked about keeping the line moving. They strove to apply constant pressure until the opposition cracked.

Now, in 2009, it seems as if the pitching staff has inherited that philosophy.

Against the Red Sox this year, every at-bat will be sacred.

"I think that everybody we put on the mound has a chance to make the [hitter] very uncomfortable," Josh Beckett said Tuesday following the Sox' 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Opening Day at Fenway Park. "I've been on staffs before that were similar -- maybe not top to bottom the way our bullpen is stacked -- but I think maybe early in my career we were uncomfortable [to face] because we were just a bunch of hard-throwing guys who didn't know where [the ball] was going."

And now? The Red Sox aren't so wild, though they finished fifth in the majors in hit batsmen a year ago, which speaks to their insistence on controlling the inner half of home plate. That comes with the territory. What they are now is an assembly line of pitchers, one as effective as the next, who pass off the ball as if it were a baton in a world-class relay race.

Keep the line moving.

Really, where are opponents going to get a break here? As poorly as Hideki Okajima pitched in the eighth inning -- one walk, one hit batsman, two runs in three batters faced -- Tampa still went 3 for 29 in the game, a .103 average. The Rays finished with an on-base percentage of .228. Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek had 15 putouts -- 14 on strikeouts, one on a foul pop -- which was three more than the rest of the Red Sox fielders combined (12).

Whether days like this prove to be the standard is impossible to predict, but this much we know: the Red Sox won't be giving away many runs this year. Their pitching is too deep and their defense is too good. That could be particularly true in April, the coldest month of the regular season, when pitchers typically dominate and scoring is usually down.

On second thought, maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to open here, in Boston, during the cold, wet days of spring.

As much as Beckett dominated this game -- and he did -- Sox manager Terry Francona had his pitching lined up precisely as most expected him to. In the sixth, when Beckett got into trouble, righthanded specialist Ramon Ramirez and lefthanded specialist Javier Lopez were warming for a potential key at-bat. In the seventh, Okajima got up. Justin Masterson might have started the eighth under certain circumstances, but the Rays had lefthanded batters Akinori Iwamura and Carl Crawford scheduled to bat second and third in the inning, so Francona went with the lefty.

Despite Okajima's difficulties -- he struck out Crawford on his final pitch -- Francona had all the matchups he wanted. (Note to those wondering why Francona has J.D. Drew batting fifth: The lefty-lefty-lefty combination at the top of the Tampa lineup allowed Francona to keep Okajima in the game when he otherwise might not have. Drew's lefthanded bat allows the Sox to avoid a potential righty-righty-righty stretch in the lineup.)

"They had righty, lefty, lefty," Francona said of his decision to let Okajima start the eighth. "Oki, when he's OK, he can get both."

And when the Rays reached the righthanded-hitting Evan Longoria, Francona summoned righthander Masterson, who powered his way out of the inning. Masterson then handed the ball off to closer Jonathan Papelbon, who blew away the Rays in a 1-2-3 ninth that featured two more strikeouts.

And when the dust settled, Francona still had bullets in the form of Manny Delcarmen and Takashi Saito, the only two Boston relievers who did not warm up.

Entering this season, we all knew the Red Sox had a deep pitching staff. What we didn't know for sure is how Francona intended to employ his bullpen, something we will only learn over time. As the season progresses, there are likely to be few (if any) occasions when all seven Boston relievers are firing on all cylinders, when the starters are all going six innings. But the beauty of this Boston staff is that Francona will not need all of his starters or all of his relievers at any given time because he might always have the option of letting two men sit.

"It was a good day," said the Red Sox manager. "We'll come right back tomorrow and see if we can [win] another one."

Their chances seem good.

Against the Red Sox this year, there will be no easy at-bats.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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