Make no mistake: Andrew Bailey loves closing. He loves the adrenaline of coming in out of the bullpen, has embraced the idea of getting the crowd at Fenway Park to erupt to the sound of “Shipping Up To Boston” (the song that formerly heralded the entry of Jonathan Papelbon, but that Bailey and his teammates decided to celebrate when they returned from their last roadtrip determined to make a statement on behalf of their city), loves being the final line of defense en route to victory.
And he’s been very, very good in that role, perhaps more so than ever in the ninth inning of Wednesday’s game when he struck out three straight left-handers — John Jaso, Seth Smith and Jed Lowrie — with cutters that had the downward tilt of sliders and showed devastating movement in on the southpaws.
Bailey now has five saves, a 1.59 ERA and an eye-popping 20 strikeouts (against four walks) in 11 1/3 innings. Yet at least in theory, the job of Red Sox closer might not be his by next week. When the Sox traded for Joel Hanrahan this winter, they called Bailey before the trade was announced to inform him of the move and to let Bailey know that it would be Hanrahan who would pitch in the ninth, with Bailey setting up.
It wasn’t Bailey’s preference, but he embraced the responsibility he was given. Now, he was asked, would he be amenable to conceding the role of closer back to Hanrahan when the latter comes off the DL?
“It’s not my decision to make. Obviously talking with them before the trade them, I told them I just want an opportunity and a chance to win that job,” said Bailey. “[But] they know that my goal was to stay healthy and prove that I can pitch. I think I’ve proven that. We’ll see what happens when he comes back. We’re all on the same page in terms of where we want to take this team. Whatever roles are, roles are. We’ll see what happens. We have 25 guys here on the same page, and we want to win a World Series. I really don’t think it matters what inning you pitch.
“Everybody wants to be the closer and everybody wants to pitch the ninth inning and right now that’s my job. Unfortunately Joel went down and he’ll be back soon. It’s not my decision to make but I was brought here to do a job last year. Injury got in the way and I wasn’t able to do that. My goal is just staying out in the field this year and they know what I can do. It’s just nice to be back out there and getting wins. We’re off to a great start and the team is playing well. That’s really all that matters.”
That the Sox have had the luxury of replacing one two-time All-Star closer with another has been a critical factor in the team’s early-season success. A year ago, the team sputtered out of the gate when surgery on Bailey’s thumb yielded bullpen chaos. This year, Hanrahan’s struggles and then absence have not derailed the team, thanks in no small part to the excellent work of Bailey.
“He’s pitched with no restrictions physically first and foremost. He’s back to the level in which he was a two-time All-Star: aggressive, multiple pitches for strikes, and even with the energy which he does execute, he’s able to make a secondary pitch as we saw today with the two 3-2 breaking balls,” said Sox manager John Farrell, alluding to a pair of punchouts on Bailey’s cutters-qua-sliders. “Even though when you look at him he looks like he’s pitching with his hair on fire, but he’s out there with a definite plan and he’s able to execute it.”
More important to Bailey than the inning in which he contributes is the fact that he is once again able to take the mound without restriction. His disappointment in losing the game-ending duties during the offseason was secondary to the fact that, after the Red Sox traded Josh Reddick, Miles Head and Raul Alcantara to acquire him (and outfielder Ryan Sweeney) from the A’s, he was never in position to justify that decision in 2012.
Now, in 2013, the talent that prompted the Sox to make such a deal is on display with increasing frequency.
“I’m confident enough to go out there and know that I can put up good numbers and I think unfortunately I’ve had a little bit of an injury bug throughout my career but I’m healthy now and I’ll keep on rolling,” said Bailey. “That’s kind of where I’m at right now. I want to prove to myself and major league baseball that I can stay healthy and put up a good season again.”
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