Commentary

Bobby Valentine finds no relief

Bumbling bullpen making things difficult for new Red Sox manager

Updated: April 9, 2012, 8:25 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

DETROIT -- It took only one game in Texas in 2006 for Terry Francona, Boston Red Sox manager at the time, to decide he needed a new closer. By the season's second game, rookie Jonathan Papelbon was in, 2004 postseason wonder Keith Foulke was out.

Will it take Bobby Valentine just three games to make a similar call on Alfredo Aceves, who has been summoned twice in the ninth inning in 2012 and has yet to register an out among the five batters he has faced?

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Aceves went hit batter, game-winning single in Thursday's opener. On Sunday, it was single, single, game-tying three-run home run by Miguel Cabrera in the stunning span of just seven pitches, in a loss like no other in Red Sox history.

Never before had the Red Sox held two multiple-run leads from the ninth inning on and lost, according to Elias Sports Bureau. But that's how they fell Sunday, losing 13-12 to the Detroit Tigers before a delirious crowd in Comerica Park.

The Red Sox are 0-3, two walk-off defeats bookending a 10-0 blowout. They opened last season 0-6. You have to go back nearly 80 years, to 1933, to find the last time the Sox lost their first three in consecutive seasons.

Now they move on to much-improved Toronto, where they're pinning their hopes Monday night on a rookie left-hander, Felix Doubront. Another roll of the dice comes Tuesday in Daniel Bard, who hasn't started a game that counts since his first year of pro ball, which was a disaster.

"It's tough," said Adrian Gonzalez, who on Sunday hit Boston's one home run in three games as compared to the seven hit by the Tigers, a collection of Motown mashers who will inflict pain on many pitching staffs this season. "This is one of those things you never wish to happen.

"We have to keep coming out tomorrow, go after Toronto like it's the last game of the season, go out there and get that win. It's big for us."

[+] EnlargeAlfredo Aceves
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonSince being anointed the Red Sox closer, Alfredo Aceves has faced five batters and retired none.

While some lineup shuffling dovetailed nicely in a breakout game by the Boston offense, which banged out 18 hits and double-digit runs after scoring a total of two in the first two games, the back end of Valentine's bullpen has yielded only bitter fruit.

"We're trying to figure out what to do," Valentine said of a bullpen configuration that lost its linchpin when Andrew Bailey underwent thumb surgery last week. "We'll keep it a work in progress. We're three games into this thing."

Unlike Francona, Valentine does not have a ready-made solution. Plan B figured to be former Astros closer Mark Melancon, but Valentine yanked him after two soft singles in the opener Thursday, and Melancon inspired another crisis of confidence on Sunday.

One strike away from what would have been a stirring Sox victory, Melancon hung a curve and gave up a walk-off, two-run home run to Tigers catcher Alex Avila, who scored the last of three 11th-inning runs given up by the Sox reliever.

"They're obviously a good team, but we didn't get that [win] today, and that's on my shoulders," said a shaken Melancon, who owns two of the three Sox defeats. "I need to stay aggressive and not let these affect me, and keep going … if I can ever sleep."

Some would argue that the obvious move for Valentine to make is returning Bard to the bullpen, especially with veteran Aaron Cook making rapid progress in Triple-A Pawtucket, where he registered 13 ground-ball outs in a seven-inning complete-game win for the PawSox on Saturday.

That is not going to happen. Not anytime soon anyway. The Sox did not make the decision lightly to convert Bard from setup man to starter, and they will not easily be shaken from their conviction that his move from the bullpen will resonate in their favor for years to come. To reverse course now would truly smack of panic.

A three-game sweep by a powerhouse team like the Tigers will not cause the Red Sox to abandon that plan. It is far more likely that if the bullpen does not right itself, new general manager Ben Cherington will pursue the same course as his predecessor, Theo Epstein, who during a bullpen crisis in 2003 traded for Byung-Hyun Kim.

The Red Sox never made any promises that Aceves had a permanent lease on the job. Vicente Padilla, who was terrific in giving the Sox four scoreless innings in relief of Clay Buchholz on Sunday, won't be available as soon as Monday, but he may have thrust himself into the mix for last call. Left-hander Franklin Morales, who has power stuff, might also become a factor.

Aceves and Melancon could make this all go away, of course, by pitching better. After Sunday's game, Gonzalez had his arm around Melancon, his face close to his, speaking words of encouragement.

"I told him it's a long season, keep your head up, keep grinding," Gonzalez said. "A couple weeks from now, he's not going to remember it."

Meanwhile, Aceves kept his own counsel. No hugs for him. The pitch to Cabrera, he insisted, was a pretty good one, a sinker down and in.

"He hit it hard, but forget about that, man, we've got a lot a games to play, a lot of things to do," he said.

"Stay positive. Even the Yankees, they got swept. It's a game, dude. That's what happens. Somebody hits it, somebody don't.

"Baseball's not on our side yet, but we stick together."

Aceves had no use for any suggestion that Valentine might be considering a change.

"He has a lot of confidence with whatever he does," Aceves said. "He has confidence in every single one of us. He talks to all of us. He's a really good manager.

"The results are not what we want, but like I said, it's the first series. Come out of Detroit. Forget about Detroit."

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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