Commentary

Closing controversy on Opening Day

Setup man Mark Melancon and new closer Alfredo Aceves failed their first test

Updated: April 6, 2012, 8:44 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

DETROIT -- How this will play with Michael Kay's radio audience, we can't be sure, although given the zip code where his show emanates from, the suspicion is there will be plenty of snickers, chuckles and Bronx cheers.

There is no doubt, however, as Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington acknowledged after Thursday's 3-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers, how this will be received closer to home.

One game into Bobby Valentine's term as Red Sox manager, grist for ongoing controversy, as Valentine's revamped bullpen in the absence of injured closer Andrew Bailey was put to its first test and failed in a 3-2 loss to the Tigers decided on Detroit's last at-bat.

[+] EnlargeBobby Valentine
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireSox reliever Mark Melancon, right, felt he got an early hook from Bobby Valentine.

"The reaction outside we can't control, we can't do anything about," said Cherington, who experienced the same fate in his debut as did his predecessor as Sox GM, Theo Epstein, who lost his first game on the job in 2003 when his now-infamous bullpen-by-committee gave up five runs in the ninth in a 6-4 loss to the Devil Rays.

"It's the reaction inside that matters," Cherington said. "Everyone who pitched today did a pretty good job. They executed, but balls found holes."

Fair enough -- the Tigers did score all three of their runs on hits just beyond the grasp of Sox fielders. Alex Avila's slicing RBI double in the seventh toward the left-field corner eluded Cody Ross, who was shaded toward center and playing in because there was a runner on second. Austin Jackson led off the eighth with a line drive on which right fielder Ryan Sweeney made a single misstep in the wrong direction, leaving him unable to recover in time. Jackson wound up with a triple and scored Detroit's second run on a sacrifice fly.

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And Jackson grounded a one-out, bases-loaded single past third baseman Nick Punto for the game winner off Alfredo Aceves, who got exactly what he was looking for: a ground ball.

"They're good. They did what they had to do," Valentine said of the winners. "We had an elusive couple of outs there."

But while this starts with the fact that Mark Melancon and Aceves, the team's new late-inning combination, coughed up a run after the Sox had made a stirring comeback in the top of the ninth to tie it, it doesn't end there.

Valentine raised a few eyebrows by offering little rope to new setup man Melancon, who was dismissed in favor of Aceves with one out in the ninth after flared singles by Jhonny Peralta and Avila.

A quick hook? It certainly struck Melancon that way.

"You know, it did, it felt a little quick," said Melancon, talking in a clubhouse long since vacated by most of his teammates. "But that's not my job. My job is to get outs and I didn't do that."

Melancon got one out, when Ryan Raburn flied out to the track in right. But Peralta dropped a liner in front of Sweeney in right, Avila flared an opposite-field single in front of Ross in left and Valentine was out of the dugout, signaling for Aceves.

"As soon as it got to be a jeopardy situation, I just wanted to close the door with the last guy who's going to really be the closer," Valentine explained. "I thought he had the stuff to get a ground ball."

Instead, Aceves clipped Ramon Santiago in the heel of his back foot, loading the bases. That brought up Jackson, who had whiffed 181 times last season.

"I wanted to get ahead in the count, which I did," Aceves said. "I also wanted to get a ground ball, ground ball, ground ball, make him make contact, put the ball in play and see what happened."

What resulted was not anything the Red Sox or their fans wanted to see: a dog pile of Tigers celebrating when Jackson's grounder skipped past Punto, who had no chance.

"They got lucky," Aceves said, "and we lost."

Valentine said he doesn't ordinarily go to his closer in a tie game on the road. But this was the opener, he had eight pitchers in his bullpen, the team has a day off Friday and Aceves has shown he is eminently capable of going multiple innings.

Still, Valentine's decision to pull Melancon could hardly have served to infuse the pitcher with confidence. Valentine had said earlier this spring that he was only joking when he said Melancon had done a good job backing up the bases after a rough outing. The line had been suggested by Melancon himself, Valentine insisted the next day.

But Melancon, despite having closed for Houston last season, appeared to receive scant consideration to slide into that role after Bailey's thumb surgery, and not being allowed to pitch out of the first sign of trouble suggests that the manager is taking no chances. Melancon was asked whether it made him feel uncertain about where he stood with the manager.

"I'm not going to think anymore about that," he said. "I'm just going to continue to try and get outs and go after it.

"It's just frustrating, especially after we come back and Pedey [Dustin Pedroia] gets on with that double. The offense was just grinding through it the whole game and they come through and do their job in a clutch situation. It was great fun to watch, exciting out there. To end up losing is tough."

Cherington saw little reason to be tough on Melancon or question how much faith the club has in him.

"I think Bobby felt good enough about him to put him out there in a tie game in the ninth," Cherington said. "He gave up a couple of soft hits. The second one was a cheap hit. I think Bobby wanted to make sure he used his closer in a tie game, first game of the season.

"I don't read too much into that today."

Cherington won't. And maybe ESPN New York 1050 radio host Michael Kay won't, either. But those fans already clamoring for Valentine to return Daniel Bard, a swing-and-miss reliever, to the bullpen? Their cries could be heard all the way to Woodward Avenue.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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