MINNEAPOLIS — One of the developing story lines on this Red Sox team is how well they have survived the Joel Hanrahan-Andrew Bailey injuries.
The Sox have survived and excelled with relievers adapting to new roles after the team’s top two late-game options went to the disabled list. (Bailey will return to the active roster on Monday in Chicago.) Over the first six games of this nine-game road trip, including Sunday’s 5-1 win over the Minnesota Twins, Sox relievers have pitched 20 innings and allowed one run. They have walked only seven batters and struck out 21.
Pitching coach Juan Nieves thinks Alex Wilson, Clayton Mortensen, Andrew Miller, Craig Breslow, Koji Uehara, and Junichi Tazawa should all take a bow. They have been asked to extend themselves when it comes to appearances, innings, and effectiveness, and they have handled all three very well.
“I’ll tell you one thing, I give them a lot of kudos because they have been pushed to the extreme and a lot of guys have stepped it up,” Nieves said. “We have guys out there who can just about do anything.”
Nieves is all about positive reinforcement, whether it’s with his starters or relievers.
“We always talk about it, even in meetings,” Nieves said. “I call them all closers. I call them all closers because the biggest outs are made sixth, seventh innings against the thick part of the order. I’ll tell them, ‘You’re the sixth-inning closer, you’re the seventh-inning closer,’ and on and on. They need to know they’re closers of that inning. They have to take that. The task never changes, we stress as a group getting the first out coming out of the bullpen.”
Wilson is a homegrown reliever who got his chance because of the injuries. He has not disappointed, working 6⅓ scoreless innings at home. According to Nieves, “He’s our best ground-ball pitcher, which plays well at Fenway and in ballparks where the ball travels well. He’s been terrific for us. I saw him in spring training and I told people I like this kid. He’s a strike-thrower. The organization should be very proud of this kid.”
Nieves said that Wilson “grows on you. You watch him go out there every time and he battles, throws strikes, and just gives you what you need.”
Miller has also stepped up his game. The tall lefty who still cranks it up to 96-98 miles per hour elicited an “Oh, my God” from Nieves. “We’re able to use him in a lot of different situations and ways, to pitch more than an inning. He’s been able to do so well against righthanded batters [.136 average] and he’s done a great job with men on base [.143 with runners in scoring position].
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about last year and I said I know you guys came on at the end but you finished 25-30 games out. I need you all year. I need you to do the job every time you go out there. And I’m telling you, [Miller] is a guy nobody wants to face. He’s got nasty stuff.”
With Tazawa and Uehara handling end-of-game duties, the other relievers have been put in higher-pressure situations. That’s why Nieves gives them all a pat on the back. Even out of their element, they’ve managed to turn it into their element.
Mortensen, for instance, used to be the mop-up guy. But now he comes into situations that matter. He has worked more than one inning in 11 of his 16 appearances.
One baseball executive suggested to this writer recently that it wouldn’t be far-fetched for the Red Sox to be a player for Jonathan Papelbon if the Phillies decide to sell off veterans.
After all, Papelbon is battle-tested in the American League. Papelbon earns $13 million per season through 2015. But the Red Sox have spent a lot of money on closers, including Hanrahan, who earned $7 million this year and made nine appearances before having Tommy John surgery.
Bullpens are always a work in progress. They’re adjusted more than any part of a baseball team. There are constant tweaks and sometimes the tweaks just don’t work. It’s finding that perfect mix and order to a bullpen that enables teams to protect small leads and turn them into wins.
The Red Sox have been able to do just that. But how long can it last as the season grows longer and the stress on pitchers becomes greater?
When Bailey returns, Tazawa likely goes back to a setup role along with Uehara. Maybe it means Breslow won’t have to be used as much or be limited to situational roles. Perhaps Miller, too.
Every team goes through a reshuffling at some point. Red Sox executives tell me they’re not really searching for another reliever, feeling they have enough with Bailey’s return and with Alfredo Aceves in the minors and Franklin Morales continuing his rehab assignment.
For now, the bullpen has been this team’s quiet success story.