On a day when Clay Buchholz helped the Red Sox to complete one of their best turns of the rotation in the past 64 years, it was nonetheless the bullpen that provided the game’s foremost drama and intrigue.
Buchholz lasted 5 1/3 innings, permitting just one run. In the process, he earned the victory (his first of the year) in the Sox’ 5-3 win over the Athletics (recap), and extended the team’s streak of starts of at least five innings with no more than one run allowed to five, the longest such run by the club since 1947.
But in many respects, his 16 outs were far less interesting than the 11 that followed, and the three pitchers who produced them. On Wednesday, the story of the Sox was that of Closers Future, Past and Present, and their relationships with their respective roles.
THE FUTURE CLOSER
After he gave up a home run on his first pitch of the game, Buchholz did not permit the A’s to breach the scoreboard again. But he appeared ready to relent on a bend-but-don’t-break outing in the sixth, when he lost his day-long fight for the strike zone, walking a pair to load the bases with one out and the Sox clinging to a suddenly imperiled 4-1 lead.
“This was as big as it gets. That was the game right there,” Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters after the contest. “The game can be won in the sixth or seventh. To me, that was it.”
Enter The Weapon.
There likely will come a time when – barring something unforeseen – Daniel Bard will assume the role of a closer. The perceived value of a dominant pitcher for the end of the game, and the stabilizing presence he offers the rest of the bullpen, remains significant enough that most teams designate their best relief arm for the ninth inning.
The Sox, however, are mindful that a team can sometimes extract even greater value from a pitcher who can be used in a variety of situations. And right now, the team loves being able to use Bard for its most highly leveraged situations.
The right-hander has emerged as the team’s pitcher of choice with the game in the balance. When runners are on base and the Sox face the possibility of the game getting away in virtually any inning but the ninth, Bard has become option No. 1.
“It doesn’t take him a hitter to get ready. He’s ready to go,” Francona told reporters. “It’s a big weapon. That’s what it is. We have the ability to pitch him with the game on the line and he’s one of the best in the league. He can get left-handers, obviously he can get right-handers, he holds runners. When there are runners on base, that’s who we want to bring in.”
His versatility was highlighted on Wednesday by the fact that he entered a game in the sixth inning for the first time in almost a year (last April 23 having been his last appearance at that early a stage of the game). It was the second straight outing for Bard in which he entered a game with runners on base and the tying or go-ahead run at the dish. And for the second straight time, he delivered.
Bard came in and wasted no time in blowing away Cliff Pennington with three straight 96 mph four-seam fastballs for the second out of the inning. Then, after Coco Crisp sliced a liner inches foul down the left line, Bard induced a weak pop-out from the Oakland centerfielder, ending the rally.
The 25-year-old made a game-in-balance situation appear relatively mild. After he extinguished the Oakland threat, he returned to the mound for a scoreless seventh, his first multi-inning appearance since last Sept. 1.
There is little doubt that Bard one day hopes for a role that enjoys greater prestige (and, yes, money), either as a closer or a starter. But for now, he understands his role perfectly, understands that there are different stages of the game between when the starter is lifted and when the closer enters when the game can be decided. And he embraces the opportunity to impact those moments.
“It's what I'm here for, I guess,” Bard told reporters in Oakland. “It just proves that games can be won or lost in any inning after the starter's out. I'm glad they called on me then.”
THE PAST CLOSER
Maybe it’s just a function of the recent performances. But for now, it looks like the pitcher to whom Bard passed the late-innings baton is still working to find comfort in a new role.
By the time Bobby Jenks entered the game for the start of the eighth inning, the Sox had extended their advantage to 5-1. The game appeared a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t.
The inning started well for Jenks, who struck out Mark Ellis on a slider to open the frame. But then, things unraveled with startling rapidity. A walk, single, infield single and run-scoring single gave the A’s a run and had the tying run on first base.
Jenks recovered to punch out left-hander Daric Barton on a nasty curveball for the second out of the inning, but Francona was not going to wait to see if Jenks could sustain his results. With the bases loaded and the Sox up by three, Jenks was pulled.
This was the second terrible outing for Jenks is his last three. Last Friday, he allowed a career-high four earned runs while matching a career-high by permitting four hits. That appearance made his poor results on Wednesday a bit harder to overlook.
Of course, it is worth noting that Jenks continues to describe himself as a work-in-progress as a setup man. From 2005-10, he owned the end of the game for the White Sox. While he chose to come to sign a two-year, $12 million deal with the Red Sox (passing on opportunities to start and close elsewhere), he is still feeling his way through his new job.
He said throughout spring training that he didn’t know what it would be like to enter games in the middle innings. And during the Sox’ home stand, he continued to maintain that position.
“I didn't know what to expect, especially in the new role,” Jenks said. “I'm still adjusting. The early (adjustment) right now is to get into a routine. When you have the ninth you know when to start stretching, knowing when to do all your little quirks. Right now it's just trying to learn the routine, when I need to get up, the fourth, fifth or whatever the case is. That's been the biggest adjustment right now. As far when I get into the game, whether it be the seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th or 11th, that just comes down to mental focus. All the other stuff hopefully will come soon.”
Jenks actually opened the year well, delivering four straight scoreless appearances. But in two of his last three appearances, there were reminders that he remains a pitcher trying to find a formula for success in a job that is different from the one he has performed throughout his career.
THE PRESENT CLOSER
When Jenks faltered, it was Jonathan Papelbon’s turn to extinguish the incipient conflagration. In the eighth, he did just that, punching out David DeJesus on a nasty splitter to strand all three of his inherited runners.
Papelbon encountered trouble of his own in the ninth, allowing a run on a pair of hits and a hit batter, but ultimately, he finished the job that he has done so many times, getting a pair of pop-ups to end the game and record his third save of the season.
It is the responsibility on which Papelbon thrives, a job that affords him an adrenaline jolt that he can’t imagine doing without. Bard recognizes the value of his role, in which he can impact the game at virtually any stage. Jenks was willing to embrace change to his game-ending role in order to compete for a title.
But Papelbon cannot imagine making the sort of compromise that Jenks and Rafael Soriano – the American League’s saves leader in 2010, who signed a three-year, $35 million with the Yankees as a setup man for Mariano Rivera – made this winter. He feels so strongly about closing that he took it upon himself to walk into Francona's office in spring training of 2007 to make his case for returning to that role, at a time when he was being groomed for a starting job.
Asked during the homestand if he would ever step back from closing if it meant more money as a free agent, Papelbon – who is slated to become eligible for free agency this winter – shook his head emphatically.
“If I’m good enough to still have the ability to close, I’ll close,” he said. “I was honestly really kind of shocked that two of the guys who have been great closers took setup roles.”
However, Papelbon hedged slightly in considering the decisions of his colleagues.
“Now, they also went to setup roles of two very good teams,” he said. “If you ask me that, give me a chance to win a World Series ring, things may change. Decisions may change.”
Even so, in describing what is important to him as a player, Papelbon – who now has a 2.84 ERA in his six appearances with an impressive nine strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings – still comes back to evaluating his body of work in the context of closers.
“For me, obviously, putting saves up, I want to go down as one of those guys that is consistent throughout a long period of time, not just got a bunch of saves one year and the next. I want to play the game consistently,” Papelbon said during the homestand. “Is he going to have an up year? Is he going to have a down year? Yeah, but he is still going to go out there and produce year-in, year-out, and you know what you’re going to get from this player, without a doubt. I want to be one of those guys who you look at, good year, bad year, you’re still going to get a lot of productivity out of him.”
Certainly, Papelbon envisions days of tremendous productivity for the Red Sox’ late-innings trio. But for how long?
“Maybe we’ll be able to keep this chain together for a few years,” Papelbon told reporters in Oakland on Wednesday. “Maybe not.”
For however long they are working together, however, Papelbon points out that the group’s success will derive from each contributor’s ability to embrace his role.
“I think we’re kind of feeding off of each other,” Papelbon said on Wednesday. “As long as we go out there and each do our job, it’ll be fine.”