There’s a lot to like about this Red Sox team.
You’ve got to like a sweep of the Yankees, whether it happens in April, August, or October. I like the fact that J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo are silencing their preseason detractors (raises hand) with nifty starts to their Boston careers. I like seeing Manny Ramirez get hot in the heart of the order, not to mention some signs of life from Jason Varitek. And who isn’t thrilled by the sight of Tim Wakefield pitching as if it were 1992 all over again?
Those are all nice reasons to like what we’ve seen this April. But I think I’m in love.
Red Sox fans can revel in the historic feat of those four home runs in a row last night, Mike Lowell’s game-winning shot, David Ortiz’s four-RBI game Saturday, and Coco Crisp’s heroics Friday night as the main ingredients in the first sweep of the rival New Yorkers at Fenway Park since 1990, and that’s fine. But I’ll take the job this Red Sox bullpen has turned in as my favorite element of the first three weeks of this season.
Where to start with this group? Perhaps the continued dominance of Jonathan Papelbon, who turned in his sixth save of the season already in last night’s 7-6 win over the Yankees. Maybe it’s Hideki Okajima, who quickly has become Terry Francona’s go-to guy, leading all Sox relievers in innings pitched (8 1/3) and getting the call to close out Friday night’s game when Papelbon was unavailable.
Thus far, the ‘pen has a 2.36 ERA, the best in the AL, and has surrendered just 11 earned runs over 42 innings. Brendan Donnelly and Papelbon have yet to allow a run in 11 2/3 total innings, and the only score Okajima has allowed was on the first pitch he offered to John Buck on Opening Day in Kansas City. Since then, the Japanese lefty (who possesses what Donnelly memorably called “a Bugs Bunny change-up”) has given up two hits over 8 2/3 innings.
Of course, much of this group’s success can be directly attributed to what had been an excellent run by Red Sox starting pitching, at least heading into the weekend. Over the last three days, Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, and Daisuke Matsuzaka were tagged for a total of 15 earned runs, which was just one fewer than that same trio had allowed in their previous three starts combined. Thanks to the offense coming alive in the June-like aura of the Fens, Francona didn’t have to yank his guys too early, which, in essence, keeps question marks like Joel Pineiro, Kyle Snyder, and J.C. Romero out of the line of fire.
The 42 relief innings are the fewest in the American League (Cleveland is next with 45), a sure sign that the Red Sox are getting consistent quality starts. By certain contrast, the Yankees lead the league with a whopping 70 2/3 relief innings, which further illustrates their major pitching concerns.
Thursday afternoon in Toronto was the first decision to go to Boston’s bullpen, a win for Mike Timlin. The Red Sox were the last team in Major League Baseball to that point not to have its bullpen register a decision, and it was a feat they repeated the very next night, when Snyder got the win against New York, walking one and striking out one in Boston’s thrilling comeback victory.
It’s been three weeks, and the Red Sox bullpen has not cost the team a game. Not one. That’s an oddity for a franchise that in recent Aprils has carried guys like Chad Fox, Rudy Seanez, and the immortal Bobby M. Jones. In fact, the closest it came was Easter Sunday night in Texas, when Pineiro imploded, only to have Papelbon force anyone still crowing for him to stay a starter (raises hand) shut up in a hurry with a dominant inning-plus save. Their 1.07 WHIP, .183 batting average against, and 11 earned runs allowed are the best among AL bullpens. Over the weekend, the group allowed a grand total of one run to the Yankees’ powerful sluggers over 6 1/3 innings. As much fun as those four straight dingers were, the ‘pen should be considered the main reason the Red Sox pulled off the sweep.
Odds are if the situation dictates it tonight, Papelbon will get the night off after saving the last two games, which could mean another opportunity for Okajima, whose popularity is growing among Red Sox fans, even if he’s not THE overseas import who garnered all the preseason hype.
Then ... well, Julian Tavarez takes the hill tomorrow night, so all hands on deck.
Normally, the bullpen should be the “yeah, but” part of the conversation right about now when asked, “Hey, how about ‘dem Sox?” In 2007? So far, so good, but we shouldn’t go overboard praising the jobs turned in by Romero, Snyder, or Pineiro. And we should be fearful in the fact that Tavarez will go back to the ‘pen if and when Jon Lester returns to the rotation. But it sure seems like Okajima-Donnelly-Papelbon is going to be one heck of a closing segue all summer long.