Two things are happening now as the Red Sox have lost two straight games for the first time this season.
For one, the team is starting to feel the absence of David Ortiz, who began his rehab assignment in Pawtucket Thursday and went 2 for 3 (two singles). Secondly, the Orioles’ bullpen, which was so solid last season, is beginning to crank it up again, shining again Thursday in a 3-2 victory.
The Red Sox lineup is starting to misfire on opportunities. Good pitching staffs can pitch knowing there isn’t a big thumper like Ortiz in the middle.
The Sox ’pen has been disappointing the last two nights. Lefty Andrew Miller couldn’t retire his one batter — lefty Nick Markakis — after he relieved Clayton Mortensen in the seventh inning. It proved to be a key walk. That brought manager John Farrell back out to the mound for Koji Uehara, the reliever who has been lights out so far, to face the tough Adam Jones. But the Orioles center fielder pounced on Uehara for a double to drive in what proved to be the winning run.
Bullpens can kill teams and they can uplift them, Baltimore experiencing the latter all of last season. The last two nights there have been some issues with the Red Sox for what is a relatively sound group. After all, Alfredo Aceves, starting Thursday with John Lackey on the disabled list, pitched five respectable innings and allowed six hits and two runs.
In close games, little things like walking a batter (Miller) and mislocating a pitch (Uehara) can be costly on a night when the offense was simply shut down.
But Wednesday was another matter.
The Red Sox did most things right. The offense scored what should have been enough runs (five) and starting pitcher Ryan Dempster did his job, but closer Joel Hanrahan threw away the rest of the team’s hard work.
The Red Sox have some terrific arms in the bullpen. They have five guys capable of throwing 95 miles per hour plus in Hanrahan, Uehara, Andrew Bailey, Miller, and Junichi Tazawa. There is no shortage of talent and experience.
Bailey is a two-time All-Star closer. Hanrahan, who spent his first six years in the National League, saved 40 and 36 games the last two seasons in Pittsburgh.
But there’s a learning curve going on here.
As Farrell points out, the American League lineups are a lot different when you have a DH, who is usually a top hitter. You can never walk anyone. You can never mislocate or you’ll pay for it.
“Coming over and learning this league, [he’s] understanding that there’s power up and down the lineup, particularly the top half, and this club, they can drive the ball out of the ballpark,’’ Farrell said of the Orioles.
“As Joel is making his way through the American League — particularly the American League East — location is key, particularly in those late-inning moments.’’
That was apparent Wednesday when the Orioles hit two homers vs. Hanrahan, who also walked two batters and threw a wild pitch.
Farrell is saying the right things after one bad game for Hanrahan. He said “we’re not running away from from him. He’s our closer.’’
What else can you say after less than two weeks? But the situation certainly bears monitoring.
Hanrahan pointed out that it won’t be his last blown save of the year. Good closers usually keep their blown saves to about 3-6, but even if it creeps up to eight, that wouldn’t be the end of the world. But on this team, Hanrahan needs to be pretty automatic there.
The Red Sox acquired him from Pittsburgh after Bailey didn’t perform very well after coming back from thumb surgery in August. So the Sox decided they needed to shore up the closer role, go for someone that was more of a sure thing. Hanrahan was entering his final season before free agency, while the Pirates didn’t want to commit long term after his 2012 wasn’t as good as his 2011.
Hanrahan, who has allowed three homers in his 4⅔ innings, has great stuff. He throws 97 miles per hour. When he’s on, forget about trying to hit him with any authority.
Hanrahan’s stuff is certainly transferable to the American League. What is there not to like about how he throws? But for a guy who was a National League pitcher all of his career to make the switch requires time and patience. The accuracy and precision have to be brought up a notch. As Farrell pointed out, sometimes you have to give up some velocity to make sure you’re locating your pitches in the right area.
Overthrowing can sometimes create poor location. And you wonder whether Hanrahan, trying to make a good impression with his new team and new fans, hasn’t amped up his velocity to the point where he’s sacrificing control.
“There’s probably a lot of things going on,’’ said one veteran scout at Fenway Thursday night. “He’s with a new team, a new league, he’s a free agent after this year, and he wants to be his best. He’s probably putting way too much pressure on himself at this point where he just needs to relax and respect his stuff. Because his stuff does translate to this league.’’
There’s no closer controversy. Just a closer alert.
Hanrahan has to make the adjustments, and understand that the American League presents a greater challenge for any pitcher.
Nobody said it was going to be easy. And with Tampa Bay coming to town this weekend, it won’t be. At least we believe Ortiz will be back (barring a setback) — likely after the Cleveland road series next week — to add the thumper to the lineup.