CHICAGO - You can never say a bullpen has arrived, because bullpen success is often fleeting. But last night, the Red Sox bullpen had its finest moment in protecting Jon Lester’s 1-0 lead.
Alfredo Aceves closed it out, his fifth save, throwing a couple of pitches at 98 miles per hour, a few at 97. The amped-up righthander has started to embrace the role, even though when asked if he’s starting to feel more comfortable with it, he said, “No, never feel comfortable.’’
Whether that has become a motivating type of comment, who knows? Aceves is hard to figure out, just ask the White Sox who had the meekest, most defensive swings you’ll ever see because Aceves’s stuff was electric.
What started as a horrible experiment is now turning into something pretty decent.
Aceves will always be an adventure, but right now he’s a good adventure.
When he told he was throwing 98, he said, “Did they swing when I threw it that hard?’’
Asked whether he had thrown that hard before, he said, “Never.’’ Asked why he thinks he is, he said, “I have no idea.’’
It’s obvious Aceves is feeling his oats and, at the very least, has a boatload of adrenaline entering these games.
He spent time before he pitched playing hard catch with Kevin Youkilis.
“He threw me a cutter that almost hit me in the face,’’ Youkilis said.
Aceves has at times overthrown, but not this time. His stuff was nasty, located well, and unhittable.
“We’ve stressed to him that he doesn’t have to overthrow because he has great stuff the way he normally throws,’’ said Sox manager Bobby Valentine.
There were pitches where he was throwing his normal 93-94, but the 97 and 98 seemed to work just as well. If he can keep throwing fastballs at different speeds, he’ll completely baffle hitters. He also threw two devastating changeups to retire the final two batters, a bounce back to Aceves and a swinging third strike.
“His ball was really moving,’’ said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “It’s not so much overthrowing, he can at times get out of his mechanics, but tonight he was unbelievable.’’
When starter Jon Lester had reached 122 pitches after seven impeccable innings in a 1-0 game, this was the ultimate test. There’s no tougher game to win than a game with a one-run lead on the road with two innings of bullpen coming in.
Valentine has definitely appointed Franklin Morales as his set-up man. Morales retired two of the three batters he faced in the eighth. Alexi Ramirez singled with one out, but Morales, throwing 95, with a splitter to boot, struck out Adam Dunn for the second out.
With righthand-hitting Paul Konerko coming up, Valentine opted for righthander Vicente Padilla.
Padilla pitched very carefully to Konerko, who had a pair of hits against Lester, and walked him. But facing Alex Rios, Padilla induced a ground ball to second to end the inning.
On came Aceves and the rest is history.
The Red Sox, who improved to 10-10 after a 4-10 start, have rediscovered their bullpen on this trip.
Valentine even had lefthander Rich Hill available, a luxury that he hasn’t had before.
The Sox bullpen has pitched 15 2/3 innings on this road trip so far. They’ve allowed 10 hits, but only one run with three walks, and have 13 strikeouts.
It’s a team that suddenly feels much better about itself.
“We’re all staying together, we’re like family,’’ said Morales. “I’m just trying to do my job every time I get the ball. I’ve done this role before in Colorado, so I’m comfortable pitching to lefthhanders or righthanders. It really doesn’t matter to me.’’
The semblance of order in the bullpen has calmed things down considerably.
It’s always difficult when a team loses its closer. Andrew Bailey went down 72 hours before the first regular-season pitch.
That casts pitchers in positions they are not familiar with. They have new pressures. Some pitchers excel and find new career paths, and others fall by the wayside and their roles diminish when they prove they can’t do the job.
The Red Sox’ pen is trending upward. Morales may be a good set-up guy because he’s lefthanded and throws hard. Padilla is unpredictable, but his stuff is undeniable. He can be absolutely nasty to righthanded batters. Last night, he didn’t have to use the eephus pitch to get the desired out.
With Hill, Valentine will be able to match a tough lefthanded hitter in a big situation from the sixth inning on. He can then save Morales for set-up duty.
Hill may also have an expanded role once he gets back into the swing of things. His down-under delivery can also be tough against righthanded hitters, where he can show a fastball, which he got up to 95 m.p.h. at times last season and a curveball that can freeze lefthanded or righthanded batters.
He can use Scott Atchison and Matt Albers in more familiar roles, when the team is behind and looking for a pitcher to hold the status quo.
Another pitcher to watch is Junichi Tazawa. Valentine didn’t rule out a more important role for the righty. Tazawa already had a three-inning save in a 10-3 victory. Valentine felt it was an important performance based on the fact the team had blown some big leads.
None was worse than the 9-0 lead over the Yankees last Saturday that wound up in a 15-9 loss. That was surely the low point. And the 7-1 lead over the Twins that turned into a 7-6 win was hair-raising at best.
Of course, on this road trip, the Red Sox had the benefit of being able to use Daniel Bard as an eighth-inning reliever, who escaped a runner-at-third-one-out situation as only he can. Do the Red Sox have any reliever capable of repeating what Bard did?
That’s what we don’t know.
All signs now point toward Bard staying in the starting rotation. He’s the one high-velocity starter.
At some point, we’ll see Andrew Miller and Mark Melancon, Alex Wilson is being groomed as a closer in Pawtucket, and who knows what deal awaits the Red Sox between now and trading deadline?
You can’t say the bullpen has arrived, but it’s at least moving forward.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.