No kidding

Awaiting my arrival in the ol’ Lotus Notes Inbox this morning was an e-mail from overseas, where a regular reader in Ireland checks in from time to time, mostly to challenge my season-long criticisms of cantankerous closer Keith Foulke.

“I can’t wait,” writes Cormac Eklof, a member of the Ireland baseball team that recently came to the States on a two-week tour, “to see your first ‘Well, I take it back, Foulke is awesome’ column.”

I take it back. No, wait. Awesome? I thought you said, “Pivotal.” Forget it.

Cormac is kind enough to point out that on a recent Boston.com survey, asking who should be the team’s closer if all pitchers in question are healthy and effective, 87.7 percent responded with Foulke, 5.6 for Mike Timlin, 4 percent for Craig Hansen, 0.6 for Jonathan Papelbon, and the most telling response, 0.2 percent for Curt Schilling.

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Two-tenths of a percent of more than 11,000 voters. Don’t let the bullpen door hit you derriere on the way out. Schilling, who returns to his rightful place in the rotation Thursday night against the woeful Kansas City Royals, garnered nearly 2 percent fewer votes than the dreaded bullpen by committee. Even worse, think of it this way, he only received 0.2 percent more of the vote than the awful Mike Remlinger.

Thanks for nuthin’ Schill.

In actuality, those votes define what we’ve all said since Day One of the ace-to-closer experiment: It’s fine as long as it’s an experiment. A Red Sox team with its ace closing out games and ineffective in the starting rotation is a Red Sox team that’s going to allow for higher Patriots TV ratings in early-to-mid October. Note word, effective. Not that Schilling was an awful closer (nor was he a good closer), but this HAD to be done to see where the Red Sox stand as October creeps ever closer.

The Red Sox need to have Schilling in the rotation, a move that will force the pitcher to stretch himself out for the first time in months. In the past, five or six innings from Schilling would be like Antoine Walker taking just one shot beyond the three-point line over 48 minutes, but now it’s an ideal hope. Curt’s former mates in the ‘pen can handle the rest.

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Ah, yes. The Boston Red Sox bullpen, a season-long enigma that has to have wooden chairs cowering in Theo Epstein’s Yawkey Way office. Scott Cassidy, Cla Meredith, Matt Mantei, Blaine Neal, Alan Embree, and John Halama, we hardly knew thee. Well, in the cases of Embree and Halama, we knew thee all too well, hence their absence.

But the more Epstein tools, the more things stay status quo. Foulke finally agrees to have surgery? Schilling goes to the closer’s role and comes out with a 5.18 ERA. Embree gets released? Bring in Remlinger, who has been shoddier than Embree on his worst day. Mike Timlin has been your best pitcher in the bullpen? Hey, here’s a novel idea. Make him the closer (of course this was a point we brought up in this space back in May and again recently, only to be ridiculed). Now, the latest solution seems to be to make the bullpen a sort of baseball Romper Room, where the kids of the organization will get the ball and be told to deliver another title. Good luck.

For all we know, Craig Hansen may be this year’s Francisco Rodriguez, a stratospheric rise to the big leagues by a St. John’s kid who was studying for finals just three months ago (yeah, OK, who are we kidding?). He’s got the closer mentality, they say, something that Schilling even had a difficult time grasping. But is he ready to be thrown into the pinnacle of his career right out of the gate by closing games for the Boston Red Sox as a rookie in September? No. Ready to pitch for the big club, sure. But close? Well, if you want to invest in US Air stock too, be my guest.

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As far as any discussion concerning Jonathan Papelbon going to the bullpen, we can stop right there, even though he’ll likely be in the ‘pen when Schilling makes his long-awaited start. But from then on? We’re going to remove him from the rotation for what? Wade Miller? That’ll generate some excitement down the stretch. I mean, it’ll be useful I suppose to have Miller, who has pitched adequately this season bouncing back from injury, on the squad when rosters are expanded come September. But to have him on the postseason roster in lieu of Papelbon would be a conspiracy of Kevin Millar proportions. And if it happens and Terry Francona dares utter the “We’re going with the guys who got us here,” line, you’ll know he’s lying because George the peanut guy had more to do with the Red Sox getting there than Miller.

But here is where Cormac is right. Foulke, if healthy, solidifies the ‘pen. If Foulke is effective, Timlin now sets up. Chad Bradford can be used situationally, as can Mike Myers. Craig Hansen is your short, need-a-strikeout guy, provided he shows he can, you know, strike guys out. And yes, come playoff time, Papelbon, or Bronson Arroyo, can become the long man out of the bullpen, hoping that for the most part the Red Sox starters make “long” defined as 1-to-2 innings at the most.

Finally, “the keys” to the bullpen’s problems with a script more convoluted than “Mulholland Drive.”

Hansen, Papelbon, and Manny Delcarmen provide a certain semblance of optimism heading down the stretch, that much is for sure. But the Red Sox will not get past the ALDS if their two most important pitchers, Schilling and Foulke, the bookends of Boston, are still aching. Schilling’s first big test comes Thursday. Foulke, whenever he’s done whining and gets himself to Triple-A (where God help the minor league kid who inadvertently sends a screamer back to the mound), still has to begin the rehab process. It’s not known what, or if, he can deliver. Hence the Hansen rumblings.

Before we get all excited about that prospect though, let’s see what Timlin brings as temporary closer. Foulke could still be a couple of weeks away for all we know, and it’s not like Remlinger is going to hear his name called. Unless it’s for the Peter Pan, one-way.

For now, Timlin is the man. And if Foulke can’t contribute come September, Timlin remains the man, just with a much weaker supporting staff than Foulke would have.

And rumor has it if this doesn’t all work out, they’re sending Timlin and Myers, their only two season-long dependables, to work with Greg Harris on the ambidextrous factor in order to perform double duty.

For the record, in an ideal world, I vote for Foulke, too. He is, admittedly, the puzzle piece that will make it all come together. Ideally.

Until then, the bullpen remains an idea in progress, but still anything but ideal.