No Relief in Sight: Boston Red Sox in Dire Need of Bullpen Improvement

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No Relief in Sight: Boston Red Sox in Dire Need of Bullpen Improvement
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It could have been a comedy of errors, though it’s unlikely anyone in the Red Sox dugout found anything remotely humorous in Sunday’s ugly collapse.

It also could have been a harbinger of things to come—or things that have already arrived and been ignored—in which case the big question on everyone’s mind should be the following: When do the Patriots get started, anyway?

Sunday’s 4-2 setback at the hands of the Seattle Mariners is, in the 162-game scheme of things, just another loss. But that’s oversimplifying a bitter, nasty defeat that could have dangerous lingering effects. At the very least, it exposed the Red Sox as a still-flawed club, healthy or not.

Because for all the injuries the Red Sox have survived—and we all know it’s been a Biblical flood—none truly affected the bullpen, which remains the team’s Achilles Heel.

If Sunday did one thing, let’s hope it relegated Hideki Okajima to mop-up duty until the end of the year, at which time he should be set free. The Sox got more than could be asked of him during his first three years, and are now watching his explosive demise in Technicolor.

His brain lock on an eighth-inning bunt touched off a disastrous inning that typified a roller-coaster weekend. What followed was a mess that won’t be forgotten by Red Sox Nation for a long time, especially if it was the latest step in a late-season crumble.

But Okajima has proven himself inept this season. Same for Ramon Ramirez. And Manny Delcarmen seems dead set on making it a trio.

So who do you trust besides Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, the latter of whom hasn’t been unblemished himself? Scott Atchison?

Has it really come to that?

Atchison has done a nice enough job, but his spots have been expertly picked. Start putting him into seventh-inning danger on a regular basis and he’ll quickly be exposed.

The Seattle series was a frustrating four-game tour of everything that is wrong with the Sox right now. The lineup is impotent because half of the bats are missing, and a team constructed on the premise of pitching and defense lost one game each due directly to the two tenets of that philosophy.

Jon Lester’s perfect game, no-hitter, shutout, and lead evaporated in the blink of an eye Saturday night after Eric Patterson committed a monumental gaffe in center and Michael Saunders hit a two-run homer to right field. The Sox had survived laughably poor defense just two nights earlier, when Marco Scutaro and Bill Hall conspired to ruin another near no-hitter and five-run lead, this one belonging to John Lackey. But they couldn’t survive Patterson’s blunder, which was followed by a Lester loss-of-focus and Seattle rally.

But Sunday was the spoiled icing on a moldy cake. Okajima couldn’t get anyone out, and compounded the issue by flubbing a pair of bunt attempts. And manager Terry Francona could do little but watch the train wreck because he’d already used his only reliable set-up man and didn’t want to insert his closer with his team down by two runs.

Here’s the kicker: Help is anything but on the way, at least from outside the organization. The asking price for relief pitching right now is insanely high, and it would do the Sox little good to gamble on an arm by giving up one or two prized prospects, especially because one bullpen hurler might not be enough.

The Sox are going to have to look internally for a solution. Michael Bowden, perhaps. Maybe Felix Doubront. But the prospect of throwing untested youngsters into the heat of a pennant race has the potential to combust faster than you can say Eric Gagne.

So was the weekend meltdown in Seattle the beginning of the end, or just another frustrating four-game stretch in a long season that still has more than 60 games remaining?

The optimist in me says the latter, especially with Victor Martinez coming back tonight, and further reinforcements in the form of Dustin Pedroia on the way soon. If the Sox can sneak into the postseason, they have perhaps the deepest starting rotation in baseball to lean on at a time when good starting pitching trumps all.

The pessimist in me wonders how this team will make up any ground if it can’t hold a lead beyond the sixth inning the rest of the way. Okajima’s effort on Sunday was not only ugly, but also frightening, because Francona had nowhere to turn and everyone— both on the field and off—knew it.

And there’s nothing comedic about that.

(This story also appears at 4SportBoston.com )

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