BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox's first series loss in 2013 largely came down to one crucial factor. Simply put, their bullpen was not on par with that of the Baltimore Orioles, a scenario that played out again in Thursday's 3-2 loss at Fenway Park.
The Boston bullpen was considered to be a strength entering the season and sparkled in the Opening Day win at New York, but has become a slight issue. Thursday's results by five Red Sox relievers (one run in four innings) do not scream for changes, but the pen as a whole was outdueled by Baltimore's and now has an ERA of 5.47 since that season-opening victory.
The Orioles, meanwhile, have a bullpen ERA of 2.79, and looked much more capable over the last two cold, dreary nights in Boston.
Alfredo Aceves gave the Sox enough to be satisfied in a spot start, giving up two runs in five innings. Clayton Mortensen gave up a hit with two outs in the seventh and Andrew Miller -- the lone left-hander at manager John Farrell's disposal -- entered to do one thing, that being to retire Nick Markakis.
However, Miller walked Markakis, continuing a troubling trend that has seen him allow the first man he faces to reach in three of four outings (the one time he retired the batter was when he was cleaning up Joel Hanrahan's mess Wednesday night, the most notable of the bullpen woes thus far). Farrell has to choose wisely when using Miller, and when the lanky southpaw struggles immediately, it can hurt.
"That's the life of a situational left-hander. He's pressed into action right away," Farrell said.
The skipper insisted there is no reason to panic, but it hurts to make that call for Miller and see things go sour.
"We're in the first 10 games of the season so I'm not going to rush to judgment," Farrell said. "Certainly you'd like to see the effectiveness be there but I'm sure in time it will be. He's a valuable guy for us right now. We have to pick our spots with that one left-hander out there, even though [Koji Uehara] and [Junichi Tazama] have been fairly successful against lefties, but that's the situation he's in right now."
Uehara had a chance to pick up his teammate, but it took just one of his pitches, a split-finger fastball that lacked bite, for Adam Jones to rip a tiebreaking RBI double, plating the decisive run for the O's.
The Boston bats managed two singles in 3 2/3 innings against four Orioles relievers, the first of whom -- Brian Matusz -- struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew with two men on to end the sixth.
After the game, Saltalamacchia was asked about the Baltimore bullpen.
"They're good," he said.
Then, Drew was asked the same question.
"They're great," he said.
Whether they are good or great is a matter of semantics. What is clear is nobody can look at the Boston relief corps as it is currently performing and use either term to describe it. And because relievers and starters are so intertwined, that could become more of an issue.
Indeed, the Red Sox have a pair of dynamos at the top of the rotation right now in Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. In part due to one injury and one rain delay, the other four men who have started for Boston this year have failed to last beyond five innings in five separate starts. That puts more emphasis on winning those late wars, something Boston could not do Wednesday when Hanrahan imploded and failed to do on Thursday, even if it was just a matter of a pitch here or there.
The Orioles have won 21 of their past 30 games against the Red Sox, including 15 of 21 over the past two seasons, when their pen has been exceptional and Boston's has been a mess. It's too early to tell if that trend will last, but the Sox are keen on the fact that tight games with Baltimore are not going to be easy.
"We just have to keep going after those guys, we're going to see them a lot more," Saltalamacchia said.