Let me begin this article with a huge sigh of relief. The Boston Red Sox are headed to the playoffs for the 5th time in six years with a chance to defend their championship title and become the first to win back to back championships since the rival Yankees did it in 1999 and 2000. Yet another sign of The Nation knocking the Yankees farther out of orbit.
The Sox have plenty to be optimistic about heading into the playoffs this season with the way their Bullpen matches up with the rest of the leagues--most importantly with their likely opponents, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, in the ALDS. Though the Sox Bullpen started off the year in shambles, they seem to have pulled it together down the September stretch. Besides sporting the leagues best Bullpen Band of '08, the Sox are proving to be one of the leagues fiercest and most talented Bullpens around.
So lets just go over who I believe will make the Post Season Bullpen Roster.
Javier Lopez (2-0): All season long I told friends and Red Sox fans alike two things about Javier Lopez. The first was that Lopez was just a fill in until they found a legit lefty for situational occasions, and the second was that they missed out on Damaso Marte. Well, it turns out I was dead wrong in both instances, because Lopez has become a dominant lefty specialist and Damaso Marte is far from a lefty specialist (with left handed hitters batting .238 against him while Marte's numbers improve with righties batting just .196). Lopez however has killed lefties, as they are only hitting .187 against him. Righties have had more success against him, hitting .305 against him, but as a lefty specialist he gets the job done. Overall he has been a huge piece in this bullpen. Despite an awful start to the season, posting an ERA over 5.00 in April, his numbers were solid for the remainder, with an ERA of 2.47 over a total of 58.1 innings in 69 appearances. Allowing only 52 hits and 26 walks all season, Lopez has been a bright spot this year for the Sox. Pitching 8 innings with an ERA of 0.00, and only allowing 5 hits and striking out 5 in an impressive September stretch, the Sox have few lefties to fear as they set to face what looks to be the LAA.
PS - Lopez vs LAA this season, (0-0) 3.1 innings pitched allowing 5 earned runs, 7 hits, and walking 4.
Manny Delcarmen (1-2): Delcarmen has been looking more like a dominant righty for the Sox out of the pen, and recently his numbers definitely support that claim. 3.36 ERA over 72.1 innings in 72 appearances, allowing only 54 hits, walking only 27, and striking out 72. This guy is another Sox relief pitcher who has picked it up down the stretch. I used to cringe at the sight of Delcarmen coming into the game, simply because he was so inconsistent. You never knew if you were going to get the shut down pitcher who is throwing 97mph and blowing them away with a 1-2-3 inning, or the pitcher who would get the first two outs and then walk two guys and give up a home run. Luckily, Delcarmen seems to be settling down with righties and lefties combined to hit only .206 against him this season.
PS - Delcarmen vs LAA this season, (0-1) 2.2 innings pitched with an ERA of 10.13 in 3 appearances.
Hideki Okajima (3-2): After what was an amazing '07 season and World Series run, everyone kind of assumed the league would catch up with Okajima, and to an extent, you could say that it had for a while; that and the fact that his splitter was flatter than the Utah Salt Flats. After a strange start to the season, giving up a lot of uninherited runs and having injury problems, Okajima pulled through and had himself another fine season. Posting an ERA of 2.70 in 60 innings, collecting 23 holds, and allowing 49 hits and 23 walks. Unfortunately, Oki has clearly had problems with righties this year. Twenty-one of 29 RBIs allowed by Okajima this year were against righties, averaging .242 against him (with lefties hitting .188). Despite problems with his out pitch splitter, Oki needs to step up and become that dominant lefty setup man we all saw down the stretch and into Soxtober last year. Establishing his curveball to righties will be the key to his success.
PS - Okajima vs LAA this season, (0-0) 3.2 innings pitched with an ERA of 2.46 with 3 strikeouts and 1 walk, though he does have 2 blown saves.
Justin Masterson (6-5): The biggest surprise of the season, besides Jon Lester, has to be Justin Masterson. This guy started when the Sox needed a starter, and when put in the bullpen he, revealed himself to be a true force on the mound. As a starter, Masterson got the job done and boasted a respectful 4-3 record while mounting a 3.67 ERA over 54 innings, walking 28, striking out 39, and giving up 40 hits (8 homers). As a reliever though, Masterson has been... well down right Masterful! In 32.1 innings he was (2-2) has given up only 24 hits and 2 homers, striking out 28 and walking only 12, allowing only 8 runs. As you watch him, you start to realize this kid loves the game, has great stuff, great location, and has been hanging out with Jonathan Papelbon practicing fist pumps and jumping off the mound. Masterson could very well be the last piece to this bullpen puzzle. And like the rest of the Sox relievers, he too is getting hotter as the Boston air gets cooler. Starting in July he gave up 8 hits in 6.1 innings, 14 hits over 15.1 innings in August, and now only 4 hits in his 10.2 innings pitched in so far this September. All you need to know about this kid is he has a nasty sinker, and a slider that batters simply don't see coming. He has matured as another possible righty setup man, but will most likely be used instead as a righty specialist. This kid has definitely stepped up in September and needs to continue his success of dominance if the Red Sox are going to go deep into the playoffs.
PS - Masterson vs LAA this season, (0-0) 9.2 innings pitched, 2.79 ERA, 6 hits, 6 strikeouts, and 4 walks, in 3 appearances.
Jonathan Papelbon (5-4): Papelbon as had one of his best seasons of his young career with 41 for 46 in save opportunities, which breaks his career high for saves in a season, and has been nothing short of lights out. With an ERA of 1.96 over 68.1 innings, he is the league leader in 4 out saves. He gave up only 54 hits, struck out 76, and walked an amazing 7 batters all season. Post All-Star break he is (2-1) with an ERA of 1.35 and 13 of 14 in save opportunities. Papelbon is not only a great dancer, but also one of the most (if not the most) intense pitcher in the game. This guy goes out there pumped up and simply blows hitters away. Papelbon has a 96 mph fastball with movement; directing a true explosion from the mound. Besides K-Rod, this guy is easily the most clutch closers in the league today -- getting it done for the love of the game.
PS - Papelbon vs LAA this season, 2 innings, 1 save in as many opportunities, and 4 strikeouts.
So as Soxtober approaches you should feel secure knowing that the Red Sox have a very solid (if not dominant) Bullpen heading into the post season, and they're only just heating up. So just as long as Masterson and Lopez keep shutting it down sideways, Delcarmen stays consistent, and Okajima perfects his OKI-DOKI, we should be watching Papelbon River Dancing in his boxer briefs this November as promised.