NEW YORK -- The All-Star Game proved the day of The Closer, a moment for the baseball world to offer center stage to the great Mariano Rivera and afford the ninth-inning legend the opportunity to take a bow.
The moment, which arrived prior to the bottom of the eighth, when all of the players on both the American League and National League roster remained in the dugout to permit Rivera unaccompanied occupancy of the field while jogging from the bullpen to the mound at CitiField, was chill-inducing. Yet in a sense, there was an undercurrent to the late innings of the Midsummer Classic that offered chills of another sort from a Red Sox perspective, with ample reminders of a three-year run of costly bullpen miscalculations.
It started in the offseason of 2010-11, a winter when the Red Sox made a short-lived run at Rivera. Rivera was a free agent, and even though the Sox still had Jonathan Papelbon at the back end of their bullpen, they made a multi-year offer to Rivera. The team recognized the likely futility of the gesture at the time -- it was virtually impossible to imagine Rivera abandoning pinstripes -- but the team hoped, at least, to force the Yankees to up their commitment to the closer. The result was a two-year deal for Rivera to stay in New York, and a staggering succession of missteps for the Sox.
The Sox, looking to reinforce the bridge to Papelbon, scanned the free-agent market for setup men. The team took a principled approach to the offseason of 2010-11, avoiding three-year commitments, thus taking it out of the running for pitchers like Jesse Crain (on this year's All-Star team thanks to a 0.74 ERA, the culmination of a three-year run with the White Sox that has yielded a 2.10 mark with 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings).
The team also was loathe to give up a draft pick for a free agent, so the Sox passed on Grant Balfour -- then a Type A free agent who would have required the sacrifice of a second-round pick (the Sox had already given up their first-rounder to sign Carl Crawford), who signed a two-year deal with an option with the A's.
Balfour, an All-Star this year, is now in the third and final year of the deal he signed with Oakland, having converted 43 straight save opportunities dating to last year. In his time with the A's, he has a 2.31 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. His shutout inning of work in the All-Star Game underscored his emergence as a dominant late-innings force.
"It's nice to be able to come here and pitch on a big stage. It's nice to be able to come here and represent the Oakland A's," said Balfour. "You never know what's going to happen [in free agency]. It's one of those things where you wait it out, you see what teams are interested, you talk to your agent from time to time. It all works itself out. It's worked out great. I couldn't ask for anything more. I've been given opportunities in Oakland that I possibly wouldn't have gotten anywhere else. I don't know. It's hard to see the future. But looking back on it now, I couldn't ask for anything more. I really enjoy it out there and I'd love to stay there. We'll see what happens."
The Sox ended up signing Bobby Jenks to a two-year, $12 million deal that allowed them to avoid both a commitment for a third year and helped them avoid giving up a draft pick. Yet the former White Sox closer's career in Boston was characterized by ineffectiveness, disturbing health issues (a pulmonary embolism and surgery that Jenks suggested was life-threatening) and an arrest in the spring of 2012 that ultimately preceded his release.
With Jenks' inability to contribute in Boston, the Sox were forced back into the late-innings relief market the following winter -- a need that became more acute with the decision to let Jonathan Papelbon walk in free agency (four-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies) and explore the idea of moving Daniel Bard to the rotation.
One potential free-agent target in the winter of 2011-12 was Joe Nathan. Nathan had returned in 2011 from Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2010 season, showing considerable promise in the second half that suggested he could return to closing with a team that signed him. And at the start of that offseason, he was intrigued by the possibility of joining the Sox.
"Quite a few phone calls came in -- some more to make a phone call than actually negotiating. But there was quite a few. Toronto was one of the bigger ones," recalled Nathan. "[The Red Sox] called, and I actually did want to hear what they had to say, because I thought that might actually be a spot to go. I think they were more, I don't want to say just made a phone call. I think it was more than that -- I think they would have liked to get me over there, but it was more for the business side of it, more they were looking to get me for good setup money. Obviously, I was looking to do what I'm still doing, and I thought I'd kind of gotten over that hurdle of the injury behind me. But it did take Texas doing their homework to see that they could trust me in taking their spot."
The Rangers moved aggressively to sign Nathan to a two-year, $14.5 million deal. He's rewarded that commitment with 67 saves, a 2.25 ERA and back-to-back All-Star campaigns. It was Nathan who had the honor of claiming the save in Tuesday's All-Star Game, entering in the ninth after Rivera pitched the eighth.
"I'll calm down sometime next week. When I get in a one-run game or something, I'll be a lot more calm," Nathan said of closing out the American League's 3-0 win. "Pretty cool to hand over a save ball to [Rivera] that he got a hold in. … It was a no-brainer. I knew it was my first [All-Star save] and I wanted [the ball], but I wanted to give it to him even more."
Rather than paying free agent prices for relief help, the Sox instead elected to try to shore up the back end of their bullpen through the trade market in 2011-12. That effort started with a deal to land Mark Melancon from the Astros in exchange for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland. Melancon gave up five homers and 11 runs in his first four appearances with the Sox, and was sent down to Pawtucket less than two weeks into the season.
Meanwhile, Balfour's emergence in Oakland positioned the A's to be able to deal right-hander Andrew Bailey. The Sox acquired Bailey (and outfielder Ryan Sweeney) at a cost of outfielder Josh Reddick and minor leaguers Miles Head and Raul Alcantara, a deal that offered an enormous payoff for the A's last year (less this year, with Reddick struggling) but little return in 2012 for the Sox, given that Bailey missed most of the year after thumb surgery.
The struggles of Bailey and Melancon, in turn, led the Sox to go back into the market for relief this winter. The team dealt Melancon -- who was dominant down the stretch in September 2012 -- as part of a 4-for-2 deal to land Pirates two-time All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan. Hanrahan, however, made just nine appearances with the Sox before requiring season-ending surgery to repair a torn flexor mass and a torn ulnar collateral ligament.
As for Melancon, the right-hander was in the National League bullpen during the All-Star game on Tuesday night, warming up while Rivera made his remarkable entrance into the game. The 28-year-old has a 0.81 ERA with the Pirates this year.
"The market didn’t really matter,” said Melancon, addressing the notion that his struggles in Boston were related to the pressures of the environment. “It was going through some mechanical issues, going through some different stuff like that. That’s not even in the realm of what was going on.
"Mechanical was just a little bit of it. It was a mentality and an attitude I had to change,” Melancon added. “The approach when I went into the game, I almost picture it as I was taking a starter mentality into a relieving situation. That’s just something that you’re always tinkering with, like your curveball. The game is so finicky when you get to such a high level that you’re always trying to manipulate things to be that much better. Every little bit makes a big difference. I think my approach going into the game changed, and it helped me a lot. You can’t even notice it when I’m pitching now from when I was in Boston, but there is a difference within myself."
In fairness, even though the All-Star Game seemed to serve as a haunting reminder of a succession of bullpen missteps, the Sox have made a couple of very good bullpen moves in the past 12 months. The team's acquisition of Craig Breslow (and subsequent deal to sign him for two years with a team option) at last year's deadline in exchange for Matt Albers was a strong one that netted the team one of its most reliable relief contributors this year.
Meanwhile, Koji Uehara very easily could have been a member of the All-Star squad. The 38-year-old, who signed a one-year, $4.25 million deal this winter, has a 1.70 ERA and an incredible 60 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings (12.8 per nine innings) while emerging as the Sox closer.
Moreover, even though Bailey lost his closing job to Uehara, he seemingly turned a corner in the final two-plus weeks of the first half, allowing one run and punching out nine batters in six innings spanning five appearances.
Still, even with the contributions of that trio, the Sox' struggles to address their late innings remain an issue confronting a team that ended the first half with the best record in the American League. It is for that reason that the Sox remain in the relief market and why, in a year when the team has rolled sevens with nearly every other move of the past 12 months, there was reason for team officials to experiences perhaps a hint of dismay while watching the late innings unfold at CitiField, and a hope that the bullpen sins of the past will not prove the undoing of a very promising 2013 season.