Without a true closer, Red Sox look for relief

Baseball: Boston is using a closer-by-committee approach this season, leaving some players and fans skeptical.

Baseball

April 11, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Pedro Martinez looked perplexed, which probably is a pretty good way to look after you pitch great twice in a row and come away with nothing to show for it.

The Boston Red Sox ace has given up just one run in his first 15 innings, but the bullpen has come unraveled in each game - giving up a total of six runs in two ugly ninth innings.

"There is nothing I can do after I go seven or eight innings," Martinez said last week. "There is nothing you can do. You just have to hope someone comes after you. You just pray to God that they do the job."

This does not register as a ringing endorsement of the new-look Red Sox relief corps or the front office decision to go into the 2003 season without an established closer.

Martinez, who will face the Orioles today in Boston's home opener at Fenway Park, was skeptical about the closer-by-committee arrangement from the start, but he continues to express halfhearted confidence that it will work.

"I have to be confident," he said. "There is no other way for me to go. I have to trust my teammates and my manager. There is nothing else to do."

The fans and media in Boston also are getting a little uncomfortable as the club's quick 4-1 start has melted away and the bullpen continues to give up too many late-inning runs. After last night's series finale against the Toronto Blue Jays, Red Sox relievers have a combined 6.81 ERA.

The relief situation is unconventional by current baseball standards but not unprecedented. The Cincinnati Reds had great success with a shared closer role in the early 1990s, when Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton passed the job around, but all of the "Nasty Boys" had big-time closer ability. The Red Sox's bullpen is largely a collection of veteran middlemen who are not considered likely candidates to save 35 games anytime soon.

So there is some suspicion in Boston that the front office may have outsmarted itself. This is, after all, the team that turned convention on its ear by hiring a 28-year-old general manager in Theo Epstein and adding new-age baseball statistics guru Bill James to the brain trust.

New team president Larry Lucchino could be forgiven for wondering if the only way to end a string of 85 seasons without a title might be to throw tradition to the wind, but Epstein said the unorthodox bullpen arrangement is a product more of necessity than inspiration.

"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel or think outside the box," Epstein said. "We just want to win. During the offseason, we were just looking at what was available. We couldn't alchemize a dominant reliever in the offseason."

Martinez said they already had one in 2002 closer Ugueth Urbina, who saved 40 games last year before leaving to sign as a free agent with the Texas Rangers. But Urbina was far from automatic in tough ninth-inning situations, converting just eight of 12 opportunities when he entered the game with a one-run lead, which might explain why he commanded only a one-year contract in last winter's soft free-agent market.

The Red Sox felt they could achieve an acceptable level of success in the late innings with a combination of pitchers that includes veteran right-handers Chad Fox, Mike Timlin, Ramiro Mendoza and Bobby Howry and left-hander Alan Embree. It has yet to work out as planned.

Embree and Fox gave up five runs in the ninth inning on Opening Day to spoil an outstanding performance by Martinez. Fox walked in the winning run in the ninth inning of the other Martinez start. Mendoza, who came over from the New York Yankees with much fanfare, has given up eight earned runs in his first six innings.

Timlin had been the most dependable veteran, allowing just a run in his first three appearances. However, last night, he gave up three runs in 2 2/3 innings against Toronto. Second-year reliever Brandon Lyon has looked good in a long role.

"We're a little bit concerned, and rightfully so," said manager Grady Little, "but we also have confidence they'll get it straightened out very quickly."

Epstein said it's a bit too early to panic, but he's not surprised that Red Sox fans already are on alert.

"I think it if was any other city but Boston, where they ask you a thousand questions about why you don't have a bullpen, it would just be a bullpen waiting for someone to emerge," Epstein said. "We'll be fine. The success or failure of any bullpen will come down to how your relievers pitch. Usage patterns might affect a game or two."

No one has been on the spot more than Fox, who entered the season as the pitcher considered most likely to get regular save opportunities. He may have to prove himself all over again after a couple of rough outings, but he insisted the unorthodox system will work.

"We are going to get a lot of heat on the bullpen by committee, because no one really does it like this," Fox said, "but if you look at the arms we have, I think we have the arms to get it done. Whether it's one day or one out at a time, a win is a win."

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