NEW YORK -- It's a terrible formula for victory.
In 2012, there were 612 contests in which a starting pitcher worked exactly five innings, including 18 by the Red Sox. The major league record in such contests? That would be 246-366, good for an unimpressive .402 winning percentage. The Sox were worse than that, going 6-12 (.333) when their starters worked exactly five frames.
Many of the victories came when teams came back to erase a five-inning struggle. Starters who recorded exactly 15 outs had a 141-261 record (.351) in 2012, with Sox starters owning a 2-8 mark in such performances.
Yankees starter CC Sabathia underscored the difficulty created for a team when the bullpen is asked to record so many outs. The Sox elevated his pitch count to 102 through five innings and then started plundering the New York bullpen, ultimately pushing across four runs against New York's relievers. That's the sort of thing that's supposed to happen when a starter only goes five innings.
But that's not what happened to the Red Sox. To the contrary, after Jon Lester concluded five solid innings of work, manager John Farrell felt perfectly comfortable turning elsewhere for the last 12 outs of the game -- and with good reason, as became evident over the course of four game-ending shutout innings in which five Red Sox relievers combined to allow just one hit en route to an 8-2 victory.
"I'll tell you what, that's the flow of traffic. That's how that bullpen is moving down there," enthused outfielder Jonny Gomes. "Maybe outside the clubhouse that opened everyone's eyes, but in here we know that's a huge strong point to this team."
On paper, throughout the offseason and then the spring, the relief corps appeared a likely strength of the Red Sox. With the addition of Joel Hanrahan in December, the team had two players with resumes as All-Star closers (Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey), a third pitcher who spent most of last year as Boston's closer (Alfredo Aceves) one of the nastiest setup men in the game over the last few years (Koji Uehara) and a pitcher who may have better stuff than all of them in Junichi Tazawa, along with a left-hander (Andrew Miller) who has finally harnessed his delivery to the point where he can use his lanky 6-foot-7 to unleash high-90s heat and a wipeout slider. Even with Craig Breslow and Franklin Morales on the disabled list to start the year, the Sox clearly envisioned their relievers as a team strength.
That was the idea on paper -- one power arm after another to come in and stifle the opposition. Still, it was an impressive phenomenon to see the blueprint come together.
Uehara dispatched the Yankees (granted, a lineup that is far thinner than the one to which the Sox have become accustomed in recent years) in a five-pitch sixth inning. He didn't throw a ball, and barely had enough time to break a sweat.
Miller followed him to the hill for the seventh, setting in motion what became the pivotal sequence of the game. The left-hander -- who seemingly found his niche as a power left-hander in 2012, striking out 11.4 batters per nine innings with a 3.35 ERA and 1.19 WHIP -- faltered initially, walking both Francisco Cervelli and left-hander Brett Gardner. The walls seemed to close just a bit on the Sox' 5-2 lead. But Miller, after a fairly straightforward visit from pitching coach Juan Nieves ("Throw strikes," Farrell suggested, was the simple message being offered), struck out Eduardo Nunez on four pitches.
Then, after getting ahead of Robinson Cano 0-2 with sliders, Miller missed with a slider and a 98 mph fastball to even the count. But Cano proved unable to lay off a 98 mph missile that Miller elevated, striking out for the second out.
"He fell behind on some guys and obviously got on and did a great job with Cano, throwing a lot of sliders then ended up getting him on a heater," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said of the southpaw. "He's got such good stuff, it's almost — you don't have to go to all his pitches. You can throw three fastballs because he throws so hard and he's got arms, legs going at you. He's such a good pitcher and he's really come into his own."
Farrell then had a somewhat extraordinary luxury. While he'd been planning on turning to Bailey for the eighth inning if Miller had gotten through the inning in three or four batters, once right-hander Kevin Youkilis was at the plate as the potential tying run, Farrell didn't have to wait. He could summon a two-time All-Star closer at that moment, with the game on the line, to finish the seventh.
Bailey came after Youkilis with the power stuff for which he became known in Oakland but that he rarely demonstrated last year with the Sox, given that, days before the season, he required surgery on his right thumb that cost him the first four and a half months of 2012. He mixed a 95 mph fastball with a sharp, power curve, mixing eye levels in a way that prevented Youkilis from zoning in too narrowly. On the fifth pitch, Bailey elevated a 95 mph fastball above the strike zone; Youkilis swung anyway for the final out of the inning.
That threat suppressed, the Sox sailed through the last two innings. Tazawa worked around a one-out single in the eighth by starting a double play on a come backer from Ichiro Suzuki. After the Sox plated three insurance runs, Hanrahan came on for a clean ninth inning that featured a succession of 96-98 mph fastballs.
No one recorded a save given the lopsided final score, but collectively, the depth of the bullpen offered something far more important -- a security blanket. Hanrahan is the closer in title, but while he will work the ninth, he is not alone as a pitcher with end-of-game stuff, a fact reinforced not just by Bailey's work in the seventh but also by the fact that Farrell felt comfortable using Tazawa interchangeably with him for the eighth.
"Fortunately we've got some depth there. We've got confidence in a number of guys," said Farrell. "Ideally it was set up for Bailey to pitch the eighth but the way Taz has emerged over the last year-plus in a situation like today, we've got confidence to go to him. So we've got the ability to match up and to get some swing and miss late in the game."
Such sentiments represent a sharp contrast to what transpired a year ago. Then, with Bailey out and Mark Melancon demoted almost instantly to Pawtucket, the Sox had no definition as they tried to navigate through the late innings in the early season. Most notably, the suffered a cover-your-eyes 15-9 loss to the Yankees in a bullpen melt won for the ages in April.
This year, the Sox do not face the same kind of uncertainty. The late innings, at least in the first game of the season, represented a source of confidence.
"It's great to have like three closers basically -- 7, 8, 9, you got three guys that can go out there and close any game for any team," said Saltalamacchia.
Obviously, the first game of the season can lend itself to hyperbole. Hanrahan cautioned that, with 161 games remaining, it would be premature to anoint the relief group a great strength.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the relevance of the evident talent in the back end of the game as well. The Orioles, after all, created considerable early-season momentum while leaning chiefly on their relievers. It remains to be seen whether the Sox can achieve a comparable impact from their late-innings arms, but certainly, Monday represented a contest that underscored the group's potential.
"I know we're a good bullpen. We can talk about it and write all we want about it, but we've got to prove it on the field," said Hanrahan. "We feel like we've got a pretty good bullpen, pretty deep bullpen, and nobody's going to shy away from any situation. The guys just went out there and did their job. That's what we get paid to do."