Thursday, June 11, 2009

Contrasts in bullpens obvious in late innings

Bill James made his way up into the Fenway Park press box early Thursday evening. He sat and watched the Yankees take batting practice for a few minutes, chatted with a couple of reporters for a few more minutes, and then slipped away almost unnoticed.

The Red Sox senior advisor and legendary baseball innovator wasn't around in the eighth inning when the Yankee flagrantly violated one of his basic tenets of bullpen use. Even though he works for the Red Sox, part of him must have wanted to shake his head in exasperation.

Here's the situation: CC Sabathia had done everything the Yankees could have asked through seven innings. The Red Sox, though, had clawed back within a run in the bottom of the eighth. Nick Green started the inning with a sharp single to center field, and Dustin Pedroia worked a 10-pitch walk that boosted Sabathia's pitch count from 111 pitches to 121 pitches.

The horse was tiring. Alfredo Aceves and Mariano Rivera both were throwing in the New York bullpen.

J.D. Drew was up next. It made sense to leave Sabathia, normally lethal against lefties, in the game to face Drew. On his 123rd pitch of the night, though, he left a slider just up enough for Drew to whack it through the middle of the infield and score Green from second.

Kevin Youkilis was coming to the plate. Sabathia was done. Joe Girardi jogged out to the mound -- and he signaled for Aceves.

Here's why James had to be shaking his head: One of James' then-radical theories was that most teams waste their closer by only using him in save situations. The most important outs of a game, after all, aren't always in the ninth inning. There are plenty of times when a snuffed-out rally in the sixth or seventh -- or, in this case, eighth -- can totally turn the tide of a game. The theory has been misinterpreted as a "closer by committee"; the term "relief ace" might be more appropriate. The idea isn't that just anyone can pitch the ninth inning. The idea is that a team should use its closer -- its relief ace -- to get the game's biggest outs whether it's the seventh inning or the ninth.

Rivera, of course, is the greatest closer in the history of baseball. But the Yankees weren't going to need him to pitch the bottom of the ninth if they couldn't get out of the bottom of the eighth.

"I was possibly going to bring him in in the eighth if the situation arose," Girardi said, "but it didn't come up."

(This leads to a natural follow-up: What situation was Girardi waiting for?)

The situation did arise, apparently, for Aceves to face Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay -- two guys who have hit home runs off him already this year. Predictably, Youkilis laced a single to right to load the bases and Bay followed with a single to left to score Pedroia with the tying run. Mike Lowell then hit a sacrifice fly to left-center to score Drew with the go-ahead run.

Rivera sat back down. He never did pitch.

"He's a guy that's coming off shoulder surgery," Girardi told reporters. "Mo's not the kind of guy now that you ask to get six outs."

Maybe he's not -- but it seems awfully silly for the Yankees to lose three games in Boston and have the greatest relief pitcher in history not throw a pitch.


Contrast all that the way the Red Sox bullpen performed over the last two days.

Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen came into the series as the two best relief pitchers in the American League, and both melted down on successive days. Ramirez allowed back-to-back home runs on Wednesday before Hideki Okajima bailed him out, and Delcarmen needed to be bailed out, too, after a rough start to Thursday's seventh inning.

(Check out Sunday's Union Leader, by the way, for the story of Ramirez's trip to the major leagues -- an unbelievable story of perseverance and desire. Ten years ago at this time, he already thought his baseball career was over. He's now one of the best relief pitchers in the game.)

With runners on first and third, Delcarmen engaged in a tough battle with Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod worked the count full before jumping on a fastball and ripping a two-run double to left field. The hit -- Rodriguez's first in the series -- gave the Yankees a 3-1 lead.

"I really wanted Manny to try to get through Alex, and it didn't work," Francona said.

The inning wasn't over at that point, though. Rodriguez still was in scoring position, and another big hit threatened to the game out of reach.

Francona didn't want to go to Jonathan Papelbon, not in the seventh inning, not after he'd pitched the day before and endured food poisoning the day before that. But that's the beauty of having more than one closer.

Takashi Saito had 81 saves in three seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, including 39 to go along with a 1.40 ERA in 2007, before an elbow injury put him on the shelf and eventually on the scrap heap from which the Red Sox plucked him up. He hasn't exactly pitched like a closer this season, though. Since the Red Sox designated Javier Lopez for assignment, in fact, Saito has become the bullpen's mop-up reliever. Not since May 15 has he entered a game in which the Red Sox led or trailed by two runs or less, a string of six straight outings.

"Sometimes it's more that we want to keep him on regular usage and not too much," Francona said over the weekend. "There are some days when we want to pitch him, and sometimes it's just the luck of the draw what the score is. But we like to have him have clean innings, and he can handle those types of situations. He's a good pitcher, so maybe we're lucky. But those games he pitches in will help maybe a day later or two days later when we have a close game.

"We have the ability right not to overuse people, and we're trying to take advantage of that. Rather than have guys be frustrated, they understand that they're going to get used."

Saito got used on Thursday.

Okajima had thrown 24 pitches the night before. Ramirez had thrown 22. Justin Masterson wasn't a good matchup against Robinson Cano, a switch-hitter who would attack him from the left side. (Cano is 4-for-7 in his career against Masterson.)

Other than rookie Daniel Bard, Saito was all that was left. He was the reliever to whom Francona handed the ball with two outs and Rodriguez standing on second and the game still in the balance.

"That's what he thrives on," starter Brad Penny said. "I saw him in L.A. for three or four years, so I know when he comes into situations like that, it's a lot easier for him to get his adrenaline up and pitch like that."

Saito threw three pitches to Cano; the third was a slider on the outer half of the plate that Cano lofted out to left field for the third out.

The 39-year-old righty then escaped possible trouble in the eighth inning -- thanks in part to a spectacular diving catch from Rocco Baldelli in center field. Saito, though, struck out Nick Swisher for the first out of the eighth inning and Francisco Cervelli to retire the side. The Yankees didn't put another man in scoring position the rest of the game.

"Sammy came in and shut the door and gave us a chance," Francona said. "Some nights you don't score, especially against a guy like CC, but he kept it right there and we kept playing."

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