Bullpen issues fading for the Sox

Here’s the thing about 95 percent of relief pitchers: If they were any good, they’d be starters.

Virtually every pitcher in baseball begins his career as a starter. No team drafts a pitcher thinking he’ll be terrific in the seventh inning for two batters someday.

But some guys lack a good second or third pitch, others have trouble maintaining their velocity or consistency. That’s the path to the bullpen.

Once upon a time, Jonathan Papelbon started 14 games for the Portland Sea Dogs but he wasn’t quite Jon Lester. Even Mariano Rivera started for a while until the Yankees decided he was better off in the pen.

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So relief pitchers, simply by virtue of their title, usually have some issues. Take away the best closers and a handful of set-up men and on a given day you have roughly 180 pitchers in the Major Leagues who could be very, very good or very, very bad.

For managers, the trick is figuring out which day today is.

The Red Sox haven’t had much luck with that this season. Outside of Papelbon and Daniel Bard, you wonder how often Terry Francona closes his eyes and mutters a little prayer whenever he brings somebody into the game.

But there are signs that is starting to change.

Manny Delcarmen has allowed one hit and two walks in his last five innings, a stretch of seven appearances. He threw a scoreless eighth inning in place of a resting Bard against Toronto last night and said he appreciated the confidence Francona showed in him.

Young lefty Felix Doubront, despite giving up a game-tying home run to the fearsome Jose Bautista, showed some guts in the sixth inning when he struck out Travis Snider with the bases loaded and two outs. Having a lefty with a good fastball who’s not afraid to throw strikes is a very good bullpen weapon.

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“We’re not afraid to use him,” Francona said.

The Red Sox also have been studiously careful in not wearing out Bard and Papelbon, which should allow them to pitch effectively over the final weeks of the season. It’s a bit of a mystery why Michael Bowden remains in Pawtucket, but perhaps he can be of assistance at some point.

Tim Wakefield has been helpful as well, chewing up innings as a long man.

Further, it was addition by subtraction when they dealt Ramon Ramirez away. He has a 1.62 WHIP with the Giants and the Red Sox do not miss him. The stashing of Hideki Okajima on the disabled list also made sense.

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In all, the bullpen has allowed only six earned runs in its last 33.1 innings. As the Sox fight to stay in the pennant race, the bullpen is not yet a strength. But it’s not the glaring weakness it was a few weeks ago.

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Speaking of the pennant race, the Yankees are in Texas and will be dealing with Cliff Lee tonight. The Rays are playing right now and facing Justin Verlander.

The Sox, however, have a tough test with Shawn Marcum. He has allowed one run in 14 innings against them this season.

Check back later on for the game preview.

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