BALTIMORE — The Red Sox were a few days away from starting the season when they learned their closer, Andrew Bailey, had torn a ligament in his thumb.
They replaced him with Alfredo Aceves, who had been a starter throughout spring training. He blew two saves in his first four chances.
The pitcher they acquired to be the primary set-up man, Marc Melancon, was hit so hard in four appearances to start the season that there was little choice but to send him to the minors. He faced 18 batters and 13 reached base.
Bobby Valentine surveyed the wreckage that was his bullpen and figured it out. He kept his faith in Aceves as the closer, made Vicente Padilla the set-up man, and picked the right spots for guys like Scott Atchison and Matt Albers.
Rich Hill got off the disabled list and became a lefty assassin. Bobby V even found a way to put Andrew Miller in a position to succeed in the majors, something Jim Leyland and Terry Francona never figured out.
Since April 23, the bullpen has a 1.59 ERA. Aceves has converted eight save chances in a row and Padilla has stranded all 15 runners he has inherited. You know the roles as well the pitchers do. Aceves closes. Padilla gets the eighth inning. Hill comes in for lefties. Miller protects leads in the seventh. Atchison is always ready for two innings.
The bullpen is a big reason the Sox have won nine of 11 and are finally back to .500 at 21-21. Tonight’s 8-6 victory against the Orioles featured stellar work by Miller, Padilla and Aceves as the Sox salvaged a game after Clay “Should Be In Triple A” Buchholz put them in a hole.
Padilla saved the game tonight, leaving two runners stranded in the eighth inning. He pitched for the third straight day and did his job.
The Red Sox are Padilla’s fifth team in a 14-year career that has known success and failure in a variety of roles. Listed at 34, he looks 10 years older and has facial expressions best suited for a wanted poster or a Quentin Tarantino movie.
“I’m kind of scared of him a little bit,” Dustin Pedroia said.
Maybe opposing hitters are, too, given Padilla’s success in recent weeks.
“I concentrate on making pitches and I try and be more aggressive with the fastball with runners won,” said Padilla, who speaks English to teammates but uses an interpreter with the media. “The game is on the line right there.”
Said Valentine: “He takes it so personally when it’s somebody else’s run out there. It’s incredible. He said he’s been on the other end when his runs were given up. He really does take it as a personal situation, which is wonderful.”
A reliable bullpen can pull teams together as much as an erratic one can tear them apart. When the relievers do their job, games that look lost can be won.
“They’re doing a great job,” Pedroia said.
Valentine was a popular target early in the season. But he cobbled together a lineup that included an outfield of Daniel Nava, Marlon Byrd, and Che-Hsuan Lin tonight and beat a first-place team.
The Red Sox had 14 hits. Every starter had at least one hit including Lin, his first in the majors. David Ortiz sparked the rally in the sixth inning with a monstrous home run.
The Sox are 17-11 in their last 28 games without Bailey, Melancon, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis for the last 17 games, and now Cody Ross.
It’s impressive. There’s really no other way to say it.
• Ryan Sweeney was not available tonight after failing his concussion test. Sounds like he’s headed for the new seven-day concussion DL.
• Buchholz has allowed the most earned runs in the AL.
• No reliever in the AL has stranded more runners without allowing one to score than Padilla.
• Miller has retired 23 of the 28 batters he has faced.
• Daniel Nava has 10 RBIs in 12 games. Will Middlebrooks has 16 RBIs in 18 games.