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Red Sox-Yankees series a tale of two bullpens

Craig Breslow gave up a three-run home run to Brett Gardner (not pictured) in the Red Sox' loss ot the Yankees on Sunday night.
Craig Breslow gave up a three-run home run to Brett Gardner (not pictured) in the Red Sox' loss ot the Yankees on Sunday night.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Funny thing about the Red Sox' three-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees, which concluded with another Red Sox starting pitcher tripping an alarm: The rotations of the two teams are not so very different.

 Both Opening Day starters (Masahiro Tanaka for the Yankees, Clay Buchholz for the Sox) have shown flashes of elite talent yet entered the season with doubts (based on performance and/or injury track records) about their ability to assume top-of-the-rotation status now. Put another way: Neither team could make a credible claim to having an ace entering the year.

 Michael Pineda and Rick Porcello are both 26 after having started their big league careers at strikingly young ages. Their teams hope they break out to become something they’ve never been.

 Third starters CC Sabathia and Justin Masterson are both former Indians aces coming off of down years that created questions about their durability and stuff.

 Joe Kelly and Nathan Eovaldi both represent righthanders with the lightning quick arms to generate top-shelf velocity, yet who did not manage, in their careers as National Leaguers, to get their radar gun readings to translate to either swing and misses or dominance.

Ultimately, only in one rotation spot is there a clear separation, as Wade Miley and Adam Warren are nothing alike – aside from the idea that both face notable transitions this year, Miley to the American League, Warren from the bullpen to the rotation.

Yet what is very different in the two teams is what they did to support a starting five for whom question marks are the primary punctuation mark. The Yankees bring a dazzling array of huge arms to follow their starters into games. With uncertainty in their rotation, they assembled what seems like a dominant ensemble of late-innings arms to stretch ever earlier into the game.

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Take Warren, for instance. He has yet to pitch six full innings this year, yet the Yankees have won each of his last four starts because they have the bullpen arms to bridge whatever expanse necessary. Waves of velocity wash over and swallow opposing teams, with tremendous early results.

"I'm the slowest thrower we've got," said lefthander Andrew Miller. "I'm being serious."

In many respects, New York appears to be following the same template that played a central role in getting Kansas City to the brink of a title last year.

"You saw the Royals bullpen last year – one guy after another threw hard," said Miller. "There was no change of pace."

Year of the bullpen
Top six bullpens by ERA through May 3.
ERA Record/standings
Royals 1.00 16-9, 2nd in AL Central, top wild card spot
Cardinals 1.51 18-6, best record in baseball
Yankees 1.68 16-9, 1st in AL East
Dodgers 1.81 16-8, 1st in NL West
Astros 2.13 18-7, best record in the American League
Mets 2.77 16-10, 1st in NL East
SOURCE: MLB.com
Alex Speier/Globe Staff

Now, New York is replicating that formula, and it was a difference-maker over the weekend. Dellin Betances was overwhelming, with six strikeouts in 2 1/3 innings. Miller worked around control issues on Sunday to record his second save of the weekend, and he didn't give up a hit in his two innings. In 28 combined innings this year, those two have yet to give up an earned run while punching out 15.4 batters per nine innings, a mark so ridiculous that it almost renders irrelevant their combined 4.5 walks per nine.

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It doesn't stop there. Lefthander Justin Wilson showed an explosive fastball in his 1 1/3 innings. He's been a strikeout-an-inning guy since the start of last year. Since being designated for assignment by the Red Sox after Boston acquired him from the Blue Jays as part of the acquisition of manager John Farrell, David Carpenter has 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings in two-plus years. Another former Sox pitcher, righthander Chris Martin, likewise reaches in the mid-90s.

The succession is unrelenting. Teams are mindful of the challenge presented by falling behind New York, a team that is now 13-1 when scoring first. They've shortened the game in a fashion like no other team in the big leagues, winning a baseball-high eight games (exactly half of their 16 wins) in which their starter didn't even make it through six complete frames.

"Their bullpen is full of power arms. They've got strikeout ability. They can shorten a game down," said Farrell. "You're always looking to get a lead early. I think it's pretty glaring though with New York."

While the Yankees bullpen blasted zeros over the weekend, Sox relievers permitted runs in each of the three games of the series. Junichi Tazawa took the loss on Friday by giving up a solo homer to Alex Rodriguez, Alexi Ogando afforded New York breathing room by permitting a run on Saturday, and the three-hit, three-run yield without an out by Craig Breslow on Sunday proved the margin of the Red Sox' defeat in the finale.

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In 9 1/3 innings over the weekend, the Sox bullpen allowed five runs while punching out six. The team's bullpen ERA rose to 4.11, 22nd in the majors and 12th in the American League. Workload has been an issue, as the Sox relievers have already been asked to log 92 innings (second most in the majors). But the Yankees are right behind them with 91 bullpen innings, yet rank third in the majors with a 1.68 bulllpen ERA.

The Yankees bullpen has the second-lowest batting average against (.160) of any relief group in the majors, while the Sox have the second-highest (.269). New York's relievers rank second in the majors with 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings; Boston's rank 24th with 7.5 punchouts per nine.

Of course, bullpen performances are subject to significant and sudden change. One terrible night for a group of relievers can change a lot of numbers in a hurry. Still, at least to this point, the electricity of New York's relief corps has aligned with results, while the Sox have seen both modest stuff and performances.

That distinction, in turn, seems to lie at the heart of an early gap in the standings between the two teams. New York's rotation has hardly been overwhelming, with a 4.16 ERA that ranks 18th in the big leagues (better, of course, than the Sox' 5.66 mark that is second worst in the majors). But in their case, because of their bullpen, adequacy has been sufficient to produce results, and to make up for the shortcomings in the rotation.

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Perhaps if the Sox starters improve just a bit, their offense will be able to achieve similar success. Or perhaps the Sox bullpen will find its own groove with some combination of pitchers currently in it and some who are in Pawtucket or perhaps even not yet in the organization.

But in making sense of a sweep that sent the Red Sox and Yankees into the week pointing in very different directions, there's a mound of evidence to suggest that New York's accumulation of mound giants with power stuff has defined the separation between the teams to this point.


Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.