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What a difference a year makes: One year after bullpen fiasco, Red Sox find relief

05.07.14 at 9:22 pm ET
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It was almost exactly a year ago that a wrecking ball gutted the Red Sox bullpen.

On May 6, 2013, the 32nd game of the season, closer Joel Hanrahan grabbed his forearm and walked off the mound with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie ballgame against the Twins after he gave up a solo home run to Brian Dozier and walked Josh Willingham. He’€™d made just three appearances since coming back from a DL stint due to a strained hamstring, and had been ineffective in his few outings in a Red Sox uniform. That’€ would be his last appearance before undergoing Tommy John surgery.

There went Plan A.

Earlier that day, Andrew Bailey, who had pitched his way into keeping the closer’€™s role even upon the return of Hanrahan, had been officially placed on the 15-day DL with a biceps strain after sitting out more than a week.

And there went Plan B.

Junichi Tazawa would be named the closer the next day, though he wouldn’€™t last long in the role. Koji Uehara was the primary set-up man, Craig Breslow was activated from the DL on May 6 and thrown into the mix even while he was still working to build arm strength and Andrew Miller was starting to find some consistency, yet his role was undefined. Clayton Mortensen became a key piece of the puzzle, pitching in high-leverage situations. The middle innings belonged to a mishmash of Alfredo Aceves, Alex Wilson, Steven Wright and, briefly, Daniel Bard. The role of any given reliever changed on any given night. The uncertainty led to a bullpen that had converted just nine of 15 saves opportunities through 32 games and ranked 18th in the majors with a 3.98 ERA.

Though the 2014 Red Sox bullpen has yet to establish concrete roles for each of its arms, relative health and strong performances have led to a wildly different situation than a year ago.

Though Uehara hasn’€™t been quite as dominant as Red Sox fans became accustomed to down the stretch last year, barring an injury, his role won’€™t be changing any time soon. The 39-year-old has still been as effective as any closer in the league, securing seven saves in as many chances, posting a 1.32 ERA and 1.171 WHIP (which seems pretty rough only in comparison with his minuscule 0.565 mark in 2013). But if, for any reason, the Red Sox were in a position where they needed an interim closer, they have some choices.

Red Sox manager John Farrell confirmed on Wednesday that one of those options would be Miller. The left-hander is in the midst of a 10 2/3-inning stretch in which he’€™s struck out 16 without walking a single batter. The 28-year-old, who has struggled with command for most of his career, is averaging 2.5 walks per nine innings (for comparison, his career rate sits at 5.2 per nine and his 2013 mark was an even 5.0) while fanning almost 35 percent of the batters he’€™s faced. He’€™s given up just three earned runs on nine hits, good for a 1.84 ERA and 0.886 WHIP.

“It takes him that first two or three weeks of the season to let things click,” Farrell said of Miller. “But he’€™s simplified his delivery, he’€™s pitching with a lot of confidence, he can miss bats, and he can get away with pitches in the middle of the plate because he’€™s a mid- to upper-90€™s [fastball velocity] type of guy. He’€™s got a lot going for him.”

Miller seems to have found his niche, and it’€™s not just as a lefty specialist. The lanky reliever made that abundantly clear on Tuesday night, when he tossed two spotless innings, mowing down the heart of a Reds order that includes righties Brandon PhillipsTodd Frazier and Ryan Ludwick. Miller is still tough as ever against lefties, holding opponents to a .105/.227/.105 line. But his performance against right-handed hitters suggest that he’€™s equipped to pitch full innings, regardless of who is due up. Opposing righties are hitting just .206/.222/.265 against him, and he’€™s struck out 11 of the 34 batters he’€™s faced.

Coming into the season, new acquisition Edward Mujica also looked like a candidate for a late-inning set-up role and a pitcher who could close if needed, given his prior experience (he saved 37 games for the Cardinals in 2013 before fading down the stretch). Things haven’€™t gone the way the Red Sox had hoped with Mujica; he’€™s allowed 10 runs in 10 innings and has fanned just six while issuing four walks. The righty hasn’€™t seen game action since May 2 thanks to some oblique discomfort, but will likely avoid a DL stint. Once Mujica returns to full health, Farrell aims to identify a more defined role for the reliever.

“That’€™s the goal with everyone. We’€™ve got to get him not only work, but we’€™ve got to get him to where he’€™s becoming consistent in terms of pitch execution,” Farrell said. “I think we’€™re learning about him. We’ve gone back and looked at large number of video clips, particularly when he was in St. Louis, and so we’€™re looking to address a couple of things inside his performance, and hopefully that leads to the consistency that we’re striving for.”

Aside from the minor tweak for Mujica and left shoulder strain that kept Breslow out of action for the first couple weeks of the season, the Red Sox bullpen has consisted of a full arsenal of healthy arms. But not everything has come easy for Red Sox relievers so far.

Tazawa has hit a few bumps in the road, blowing two saves and allowing five earned runs in his last four innings after beginning the year with a 10-inning, 11-game scoreless streak. Chris Capuano, who has been a pleasant surprise in his first full-time relief role, had tossed 15 scoreless innings before back-to-back ugly outings in his last two appearances. Regardless, the two will continue to appear in key spots in late innings.

But a solid bullpen doesn’€™t end with set-up men and the closer. Sinkerballer Burke Badenhop has been a solid option both in multi-inning situations and in late innings. The righty looked to be on the verge of losing his spot in the ‘€˜pen in the early going, allowing 12 hits and six runs in his first six innings as a Red Sox. But, as is the case with many sinkerballers, repetition and work led to more consistent performances, and Badenhop has delivered 10 1/3 straight scoreless innings.

“I think we’€™re seeing more consistent velocity because of the work — he’€™s now pitching 90-91, where in spring training it was 86-88,” Farrell said of Badenhop’s recent success. “We’€™re seeing later action in the strike zone as opposed to a long, sinking action. It’s movement is closer to the plate.”

He’€™s been able to adapt to any situation, ranging from a 3 2/3-inning outing from innings three through six to tight spots, like working out of a jam with two outs and the bases loaded in the 10th inning of a tie ballgame. Tuesday night against the Reds, he relieved starter Felix Doubront with two on and one out in the top of the sixth, inducing a double play. He then went on to pitch a clean seventh.

“He has saved us a number of times with extended outings and then to come in in a key spots like [Tuesday] night,” Farrell said. “He’€™s not your traditional choice, to have him come in and face a lefty, but it ends up working out. He’€™s the one guy in that bullpen, it’€™s the reason he’s here, that complements everyone else. He’€™s got the ability to get a ground ball double play.”

Though the season is young and the roles are still evolving and being defined, the Red Sox bullpen has been a strength. They rank third in the American League with a 3.23 ERA, have converted nine of 12 saves and have allowed the second fewest walks of any bullpen in the AL.

Whatever snags the Red Sox bullpen has hit thus far and whatever obstacles they may face throughout the remainder of 2014, there’s no doubt that in comparison to what has transpired thus far in comparison to what had occurred a year ago, the relief corps appears to be in stable shape through the first 32 games of 2014.

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