FORT MYERS, Fla. - The major concern the Red Sox had about replacing closer Jonathan Papelbon with Andrew Bailey was can the former A’s closer hold up physically through a full season?
Bailey is going to have to answer that question before the end of spring training. Despite being a two-time All-Star, he’s been injured the last two seasons and was set back this spring for about two weeks because of a lat strain.
He finally got on the mound Monday in a 5-3 win over the Marlins. It started poorly but ended well.
The most important thing, as former Red Sox pitcher Sammy Stewart once uttered after a spring training outing, is “the only thing I’m worried about is nothin’ not hurtin.’ ’’
And Bailey said nothin’ was not hurtin’ after he threw 19 pitches, 14 for strikes, in the sixth inning.
There has to be concern about the back end of the Boston bullpen with Bailey and Mark Melancon, who pitched a clean inning Monday, replacing Papelbon and Daniel Bard.
Bard appears to have nailed down a spot in the rotation, which leaves the very effective Alfredo Aceves in limbo if the Sox don’t feel good about their primary setup man and closer. Aceves wants to start, but that may not happen if Bailey doesn’t show he’s ready.
“The first guy [Omar Infante] hit a double and immediately your mind switches to that closer’s mentality, where you never want to blow a lead. It doesn’t matter for me if it’s in spring training,’’ said Bailey. “So for me it was kind of cool to have your first outing be that kind of tight ballgame and for me to kind of act like it was regular season. And obviously I have some things to work on. That’s why we start with spring training. But it was nice to get in that situation. But for me you never want to give up runs no matter what inning you pitch.’’
The Sox feel they can get Bailey another six or seven appearances before camp breaks. They’d love to get him a game or two with multiple innings.
Manager Bobby Valentine will take a healthy outing first, then worry about the rest later.
Bailey wanted to break into a game and build a little momentum.
“I felt comfortable out there,’’ he said. “Kind of normal for me, just the first outing in spring. And obviously had the mind-set of going in and working on things. Soon as a guy gets on base, that switches gears. So it was fun.’’
With ice packs on his shoulder, side, and elbow, he said, “Nothing hurt. [The ice packs are all] just for show. I feel great. It’s great to be back out there. Obviously with the little lat thing, it was kind of frustrating. But it’s good that it happened when it did, in the early part of spring. And hopefully I don’t have to vertical jump next year.’’
Bailey, who suffered the lat injury getting his vertical jump tested, dismissed any notion he wouldn’t have enough time to get ready.
“There’s plenty of opportunities to get in games,’’ he said. “I shouldn’t miss too much. I think some of the guys are even scheduled for an extra off day here or there. And for me, I’ll just keep on going through and get ready for Opening Day.’’
Bailey doesn’t seem to care about potential pressure from comparisons with Papelbon.
“I don’t really feel the pressure,’’ Bailey said. “I know what he did here obviously, the all-time save leader here. For me, it’s a new opportunity in my career. The pressure is what you put on yourself and in my eyes it’s an opportunity in my career to further my career and pitch for the greatest franchise in baseball. So I’m just excited about that.’’
Jarrod Saltalamacchia said Bailey had a little jump on his fastball, the kind of late life that is needed from a closer.
“Working with Salty behind the plate was cool,’’ Bailey said. “We’ll be working a lot together. So obviously getting on the same page as him and kind of seeing how he sets up and for him seeing what I do. So I think that was the biggest thing, the communication between me and him. It was good that the game kind of came down with runners on base and that kind of stuff because not every outing’s going to be clean. Guys are going to get on base. So it was good to be able to work together.’’
Though he appears mellow off the field, Bailey is fiery on the mound. Perhaps not like Papelbon, but all great closers need that edginess.
“I’ll never take a day off of being intense,’’ he said. “One hundred percent. You have a small window to play this game and if you go out there and not give your all or be as intense as you can, I wouldn’t sleep at night. So for me, going out there every night knowing I did my best and putting everything I had into it, that’s what I’m going to give you.’’
While he doesn’t care about his spring training lines and Monday was one inning, three hits, one run, Bailey said, “I never like giving up runs . . . it doesn’t matter when it is, obviously the more important ones are down the road. It never feels good.’’
Bailey wants to fit in with his new team and prove he can do the job.
“For me it doesn’t matter when it is, I’m always intense and have that energy. And I’ve been around the guys long enough where you’re comfortable with them and getting acclimated with a new team. It wasn’t really too nerve-racking being in a new uniform. I’m looking forward to that first game at Fenway.’’
Bailey has had elbow problems and nagging little things that have prevented him from becoming an elite closer. At 27, he’s entering his prime seasons.
But until he gets through camp without incident, the Sox are privately holding their collective breath.
If Bailey stays healthy, however, the concerns will disappear.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.