Saturday, August 8, 2009

Welcome back, Red Sox bullpen

Well, you can't pin that one on the pitching.

Not only did Josh Beckett pitch seven sensational innings -- he now has an ERA+ of 151, fifth-best in the American League -- but a Red Sox bullpen that has seen its ups and downs over the last couple of months pitched 7 2/3 more sensational innings to push Friday night's epic to 15 innings.

The impressive outing from the group of pirate impersonators -- they wear shirts with a skull and crossbones that say, "The beatings will continue until morale improves" -- is all part of the reversal of a downward trend over the first three months of the season:

April: 2.88 ERA
May: 3.04
June: 3.82

A bullpen that had been so untouchable had begun to show some cracks in the foundation. The June 30 meltdown in Baltimore was most notable, but Takashi Saito (3.72 ERA in June), Manny Delcarmen (4.00), Justin Masterson (4.38), Hideki Okajima (5.25) and Daniel Bard (5.40) all had started to see their ERAs tick upward.

But things have begun to trend back to the other way in July and August -- particularly since the All-Star break:

Hideki Okajima: 1.04 ERA
Daniel Bard: 1.12
Takashi Saito: 1.93
Ramon Ramirez: 1.93
Jonathan Papelbon: 2.16
Manny Delcarmen: 4.63

And Friday night only exemplified the way the unit has bounced back from some of the potholes it hit in June and early July:

Okajima: 1 1/3 IP, 1 K
With such a short porch in right field and the Yankees' lineup stacked with switch-hitters, Francona first turned to Okajima to turn those switch-hitters around and make them hit from the right side of the plate. Okajima struck out Melky Cabrera and got Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon to hit relatively harmless fly balls.

Bard: 2/3 IP, 1 BB, 2 K
By the time Mark Teixeira came to the plate, though, Okajima had thrown 25 pitches and it was time for Daniel Bard. The rookie threw a couple of sliders for called strikes on the outside part of the plate and then blew a 98-mile-an-hour fastball past Teixeira for the third strike. Bard pitched himself into a little trouble, walking Hideki Matsui and then balking his baserunners to second and third. But he came up with the biggest pitch of his outing against Jorge Posada, a slider down and in that a fishing Posada couldn't catch.

Ramirez: 2/3 IP, BB
With one out in the 10th, Ramirez walked Eric Hinske and moved him to second with a wild pitch. But he made the pitch he needed to make, a sinker-slider-changeup-whatever-it-is up and away that Melky Cabrera grounded to second for the second out of the inning. But it did advance Hinske to third.

Papelbon: 1 1/3 IP, 2 K
The Red Sox closer always has been at his best this season in high-pressure situations. With the bases empty this season, opponents are OPS'ing .712 against him -- and with runners in scoring position, opponents are OPS'ing .443. With a single runner on third base, the situation Papelbon faced in the 10th inning, opponents are 2 for 24 and have plated the run just three times.

Papelbon went right after Jeter, throwing six straight fastballs, and he blew a 97-mile-an-hour heater right past him to retire the side.

The all-fastball theme didn't abate in the 11th inning, either. Papelbon has mixed sliders and splitfingered fastballs to his repertoire all season, but he threw a four-seam fastball on 15 of his 16 pitches and just one splitter. (That was a ball to Damon on his second pitch of the inning.) His 15th fastball of the inning was up and over the plate and right past the flailing bat of Alex Rodriguez.

Delcarmen: 1 IP, 2 BB
He didn't make it easy for himself, walking Posada and Hinske, but Delcarmen also induced three weak fly balls -- the last of which a pop fly to second base on a changeup on the outside corner to Melky Cabrera.

Saito: 1 IP, 1 BB
Rodriguez had a chance to be a hero about half an hour before he ended up being a hero, but Saito wiggled out of a tough spot with two outs in the 13th. Home-plate umpire Chad Fairchild had shown some inconsistency with his zone all night, but two of the first three pitches Saito threw to Rodriguez really appeared to be strikes but were called balls.

Down 3-0 with a runner already on second and Hideki Matsui on deck, Saito had to make his pitches. Possibly suspecting that Rodriguez would have the green light on 3-0, Saito threw a 93-mile-an-hour fastball up and in that Rodriguez chased and missed. Saito then threw a curveball down and away that Rodriguez hit weakly to left field for the third out.

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