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Red Sox ALCS Game 4 pregame notes: Red Sox bullpen defies expectations; John Farrell wrestles with Jonny Gomes vs. Daniel Nava

10.16.13 at 8:22 pm ET
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Junichi Tazawa's strikeout of Miguel Cabrera in Game 3 continued the excellent work of the Sox bullpen in the playoffs. (AP)

Junichi Tazawa’s strikeout of Miguel Cabrera in Game 3 continued the excellent work of the Sox bullpen in the playoffs. (AP)

DETROIT — Remember when the bullpen was supposed to be the Red Sox’ Achilles heel in the postseason?

As the season wound down, the ability of the team to bridge from its starters to Koji Uehara seemed very much in question. Craig Breslow‘s season gave reason to believe he could be an important and reliable postseason contributor, but the vulnerability to hard contact by Junichi Tazawa and Brandon Workman raised significant questions about the Sox’ depth for the middle to late innings.

Seven games into the postseason, those question marks have transformed into exclamation points. The Sox bullpen has transformed the narrative surrounding its status as the team’s weak link, delivering one dominating performance after another.

In 19 1/3 postseason innings, Red Sox relievers have a 0.93 ERA that ranks as the ninth best ever (min. 10 innings) by a postseason team in the Division Series era, and the second best (behind only the 2000 Athletics, who had a 0.51 mark) among American League teams. The group has held opponents to a .179 average while punching out 19 batters in 19 1/3 innings (8.8 per nine). In the ALCS, the team has yet to give up a run in 8 1/3 innings.

Uehara did allow a run (and absorbed the loss) against the Rays when Jose Lobaton homered against him, but that solo homer is the only run he’s yielded in six appearances spanning 6 1/3 innings with nine punchouts and no walks. Breslow has appeared in five games, and has yet to permit a run in 5 1/3 innings. Tazawa has featured explosive stuff at times, a fact highlighted by his four-pitch punchout of Miguel Cabrera with the tying run standing on third base and one out in the eighth inning of the Sox’ 1-0 win on Tuesday, en route to 3 1/3 scoreless frames in six appearances. And the team has gotten somewhat unexpected contributions from Felix Doubront (1 1/3 shutout innings in the Sox’ comeback win in Game 2 of the ALCS), Ryan Dempster (one scoreless inning) and Workman (1 2/3 scoreless innings in two appearances).

“They’ve been very good. and the focus is going to be on three guys primarily, but still, the other guys that have come into games – what Doubront did the other night – with 15 days off or whatever it might have been, or Workman, they’ve all come in and executed extremely well,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “I know there was a lot made about their uncertainty before the postseason and particularly in Taz’s case, where we had to rebuild a little bit of confidence at times and the more he’s come in and shut off an inning, in shorter stints, that has gradually built to the point where right now, I think he feels pretty good about himself.”

OTHER RED SOX NOTES

– Farrell has been wrestling with left field on a near-daily basis as he decides whether to go with Jonny Gomes or Daniel Nava at the position — even in a series where the Tigers are rolling out four right-handed starters. Nava spared the Sox from being no-hit in Game 1, and finished the year fifth in the American League in OBP (.385). Gomes scored the winning run in Game 2, broke up Justin Verlander‘s no-hit bid in Game 3 and possesses what Farrell has described as vital, game-changing intangibles.

But with Nava owning five hits in 12 career plate appearances against Fister, good for a .417/.500/.667 line with three doubles in 14 plate appearances, Farrell made the call for Nava after sitting him in Games 2 and 3.

“Daniel has had such good success against [Fister], and left-handers have fared better than right-handers for the most part against Fister,” reasoned Farrell. “It’s tough to sit [Gomes]. Even yesterday, he had very good at-bats against Verlander, even though he only had one hit to show for it, but he just misses a home run. I don’t like to take that guy out of the lineup for the reasons we talked about.”

At the same time, Farrell recognizes that as much as he likes to get Gomes into the lineup, Nava’s performance suggests that he can contribute as well. As such, he’s been mindful of explaining his lineup decisions to both players.

“It’s not like [Nava] hasn’t earned it,” said Farrell, “but maybe sometimes just going away from the numbers and going a little bit more with a gut feel about the situation, as long as it’s explained to them, they understand it. They might not completely agree with it, but at least they understand it.”

– Farrell discussed the trouble that Cabrera had with fastballs away in Game 3 — a contest in which he swung and missed more than in any other game in at least the past six seasons. While acknowledging that the Sox were able to exploit a particular vulnerability in Tuesday’s game, Farrell suggested that he and the Sox didn’t take it for granted.

“I don’t know if what he’s dealing with is limiting his ability to extend on some pitches or use his legs to drive the ball the other way. I don’t know what that is,” said Farrell. “We’ve got probably some guys in our lineup you could say, well, you can do this to them right now and that’s effective. He doesn’t hit .350 by getting infield basehits. He’s got the ability to adjust. So what we’ve got to be mindful of that.”

David Ortiz played his 64th career postseason game with the Red Sox on Tuesday, surpassing Jason Varitek for the club record in October games played.

– In the best-of-seven League Championship Series era, there have been six previous instances in which the road team won Games 1 and Games 3. In each of those prior instances, the team that won Game 3 has gone on to win the series each time. Of the 22 teams with a 2-1 advantage in the ALCS since the advent of the best-of-seven format, 17 (77 percent) have advanced to the World Series.

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