Commentary

Desperate times for Sox bullpen

Debacle against Yankees should convince Bobby it's time to change course -- fast

Updated: April 22, 2012, 9:15 AM ET
By Steven Krasner | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- How do the Red Sox spell relief?

Well, if the ugly 4-10 start to the season is as legitimate a sample as it appears to be, embattled Boston manager Bobby Valentine can't spell it Aceves, Padilla, Morales, Thomas or Albers, nor had he been able to spell it Melancon.

When you talk about a wing and a prayer, so far that has been the definition of Boston's scary bullpen. At least that is what it degenerated into when expected closer Andrew Bailey suffered a thumb injury late during spring training that required surgery, keeping him out of action until at least the All-Star break.

[+] EnlargeAlfredo Aceves
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesAlfredo Aceves, who gave up four runs in the eighth inning, was part of a long line of Sox relievers who helped blow Boston's 9-1 lead.

After the bullpen torched Felix Doubront's 9-1 seventh-inning lead in an incredible meltdown that turned into an embarrassing 15-9 loss to the rival New York Yankees on Saturday, accounting for Boston's fifth straight loss at home, it might be time to revisit a pitching decision that was etched in stone even before the start of spring training.

The Red Sox committed to Daniel Bard as a starter. In fact, he is scheduled to start ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" game at Fenway Park against the Yankees in the homestand finale, if predicted rain doesn't disrupt the 8 p.m. game.

And Saturday night, general manager Ben Cherington reiterated that, despite the day's bullpen debacle that continued a disturbing trend, Bard will remain in the rotation, making his scheduled start Sunday night.

But how much longer can the Sox afford to keep Bard in the rotation while their bullpen is so shaky? Desperate times call for desperate measures. And these are desperate times for the reeling Red Sox.

Valentine needs someone to get an out. Just one out, and go from there. How can he trust anyone in his bullpen right now to get important outs late in a game, or even outs in a blowout, when no one has been able to do it yet? Not consistently, anyway.

At times Franklin Morales, Vicente Padilla, Matt Albers, Justin Thomas and closer-because-there's-no-one-else Alfredo Aceves have gotten solid results, but Saturday's implosion has to be straining the organization's patience. While Valentine has made some questionable pitching moves this season, the boos raining down on him Saturday were undeserved. What else could he do? He just pointed to the bullpen and called out, "Next!" He already sent ineffective Mark Melancon to Pawtucket.

Valentine was so desperate Saturday he had his closer, Aceves, warming up in the seventh, the first of two consecutive seven-run innings for the Bronx Bombers. He brought in Aceves with a 9-8 lead for a six-out save with a runner at first in the eighth, and Aceves didn't get any outs, facing six batters before getting the hook.

Red Sox owner John Henry, Cherington and Valentine sat behind closed doors for a long time after Saturday's shell-shocking, demoralizing defeat. Clearly, the bullpen's major issues had to be on their agenda. The acquisition of Marlon Byrd isn't going to turn this team around.

Jonathan Papelbon isn't about to walk through that bullpen, either, having taken his act to Philadelphia.

There are not many options right now. It's not as though Pawtucket is loaded with big-league-ready relievers. If it had been, they'd be here by now. Scott Atchison has pitched well in a long-relief, mop-up type of role, but he wouldn't seem to be the answer. Rookie Junichi Tazawa has looked solid in two outings since being called up, but right now he represents a cross-your-fingers gamble if he's thrust into a more pressure-packed late-inning role.

So naturally, the focus turns to Bard. He has done OK as a starter in two outings, but he has a high-90s fastball and the type of swing-and-miss stuff that no one else in the bullpen possesses.

The right-hander had some success as Papelbon's setup man. He has faltered in the past few Septembers, but he does have experience in the role. He has gotten big outs in the past. He could give Valentine a little peace of mind when he points out to the bullpen to bring someone in.

Maybe Bard eventually will turn into an ace as a starting pitcher. But the Sox need outs from their bullpen right now. Putting Bard into the bullpen immediately does not mean that he can't move back into the rotation if others step up in the bullpen down the road. Maybe Aaron Cook could come up from Pawtucket and take Bard's spot in the rotation.

[+] EnlargeBobby Valentine
AP Photo/Michael DwyerThe boos got louder as Bobby Valentine repeated his walks to the mound at Fenway on Saturday.

If Bard were pitching the ninth, Aceves could go back to pitching the seventh and eighth, where he was extremely effective a year ago. And maybe that would help sort out the other roles, too. Currently, there are no defined late-game roles even if Aceves is called the closer, because the relievers haven't been doing the job no matter when they've been called upon.

The way the game has evolved, managers have to get anywhere from six to nine outs from their relievers virtually every game. Where are those outs coming from in Boston? While earned-run averages for relievers can be deceiving, especially this early in the year, they are ugly in Boston's bullpen -- Aceves (24.00, including two blown saves), Padilla (9.82), Thomas (7.71), Morales (6.35) and Albers (4.15).

Over the last four games, Boston's bullpen has surrendered 27 earned runs in 15 innings for a whopping 16.20 ERA, and that includes three shutout innings Friday.

Valentine was asked after Saturday's nightmare if the Sox might reconsider roles on the pitching staff.

"Maybe. Not right here and now. Do everything. Take all considerations in," said Valentine.

Would he consider moving Bard to the bullpen?

"Got to consider everything," said Valentine.

There's a scene in the movie "Bull Durham" where the Durham Bulls team is struggling badly. One of the players comes up with a suggestion to try to turn around the team's fortunes.

"What we need," said the player, "is a rainout."

Well, right now the Boston Red Sox are the Durham Bulls. They are struggling badly. The team could use a rainout, and it's possible Mother Nature will oblige Sunday night if Saturday's weather predictions come true.

Steven Krasner is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

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