Thursday, April 9, 2009

Francona feeling out use of bullpen

"It's not the situation we really want to use anybody, but it was nice to get them in, get them out and let them get their feet under them."
-- Terry Francona, late Wednesday night

Yes, it's Game 2 of a 162-game season. No, you don't want to start screwing around with your bullpen this early, particularly with Daisuke Matsuzaka pitching today and a six-game West Coast swing on the schedule after that.

But it sure seemed like the Red Sox manager threw in the towel early last night. It sure seemed like he wasn't too worried about who was pitching against whom after Carlos Pena's two-run home run pushed the Rays' lead to 5-1. It sure seemed like he was using his pitching staff on Wednesday the way he's been using it for the last six weeks in Fort Myers.

Manny Delcarmen pitched the sixth inning. Ramon Ramirez pitched the seventh. Takashi Saito pitched the eighth. Javier Lopez pitched the ninth. What that meant, though, was that when Lopez (a lefty specialist) ran into trouble against a lineup featuring as many righties as lefties, there was no one to bail him out of trouble. Francona had gone through all his arms. No one was warming in the bullpen. No matter what, Lopez was finishing the ninth inning. It was as if Lopez was throwing a mop-up inning even though the Red Sox had gotten the tying run to the plate the previous half-inning.

"The bullpen came out of it with everybody just throwing one inning, so we're OK there."
-- Francona, late Wednesday night

Conversely, Joe Maddon managed the game less to get his guys work and more to win the game. He had Dan Wheeler throw one inning, yanked J.P. Howell when the situation called for it and then had Grant Balfour throw 1 1/3 innings to finish off the game.

Let's look back at the bottom of the eighth and the top of the ninth, the two innings (other than the top of the fifth, when the Rays got to Jon Lester) that could have decided the game.

The bottom of the eighth
Maddon brought in Howell to start the eighth inning; Dustin Pedroia was leading off, but lefty slugger David Ortiz was on deck. Of course, because these things never go according to script, Pedroia struck out and Ortiz roped a single to left field. Kevin Youkilis, a righty bat, then drilled a line drive down the third-base line that would have been a double.

Rocco Baldelli was on deck; the righthanded hitter is a .276 career hitter against righties and .296 career hitter against lefties. Grant Balfour, a righty, was in the bullpen. But the Red Sox had J.D. Drew available to pinch-hit; he's a .291 career hitter against righties (as opposed to .260 against lefties). On top of that, Balfour actually is tougher against lefties (.212) than righties (.224) in his career. Maddon left Howell in the game. Baldelli struck out.

Jason Bay, a righty with almost identical numbers against lefties and righties, came up next. He smoked a double into the left-field corner. Mike Lowell, a righty with similarly consistent numbers against pitchers of either "handedness," as Baldelli would say, was next; he was hit by a pitch.

That brought up switch-hitter Jed Lowrie with the bases loaded and two outs. In a 6-2 game, Lowrie was the tying run -- and in his short big-league career, he's hit .223 against righties and .338 against lefties. It was almost a no-brainer. Maddon went and got Balfour. Lowrie struck out.

The top of the ninth
No Red Sox pitcher has splits as drastic as Lopez. Lefties hit .182 against him last season; righties hit over .300. He's a lefty specialist. Except in garbage time or emergencies, he really shouldn't be pitching against righties.

Francona brought him in to start the ninth inning. His first assignment was switch-hitter Ben Zobrist, a player with similar numbers from both sides of the plate. Zobrist, hitting righty, flew out. But the next hitter was righty Gabe Kapler -- and Kapler doubled off the left-field wall.

Lefty Akinori Iwamura was next, and the result was predictable; he got under a slider and popped it up. It was bad luck that the pop-up eluded Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie in shallow center field -- and that bad luck actually turned into good luck when Ellsbury threw Kapler out at third.

Righty Jason Bartlett was due up after Iwamura; here still was a runner on second and now two outs. Bartlett is a career .276 hitter -- .255 against righthanded pitchers and .328 against lefthanded pitcher. This seemed like a situation that screamed for a righty.

Francona, though, had no one warming. It was Lopez's show.

Bartlett proceeded to rip a single to left field to score a run to push the Rays' lead to 7-2.

Maybe it doesn't matter. It was, after all, the ninth inning. The Red Sox weren't all that likely to score four runs in the bottom half of the inning.

Then again, though, they'd loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth and had come one hit away from making it a game again. With Jason Varitek (or a pinch-hitter), Jacoby Ellsbury and Pedroia due to hit, there was no reason the Red Sox couldn't have gotten a couple of runners on base in front of Ortiz and Youkilis.

"For the first couple of weeks, what we really want to do is not overuse and not underuse, hopefully, anybody. I think we feel pretty comfortable that we can pretty much go to anybody depending on what the situation is: how early, who's up, who's coming up, things like that. It gives us a few different options. The biggest thing is trying to be consistent with the usage of guys, especially in the first couple of weeks."
-- Francona, early Thursday morning

It's early. We all get that.

But in a division as tight as the American League East, every game counts. Four runs is not an insurmountable lead. Last night, though, Francona appeared to value the "not overuse and not underuse" mantra over keeping the game within striking distance. It'll be interesting to see how long that lasts.

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