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NEW YORK -- For all of his faults, real or imagined, there was at least one mess on the 2012 Boston Red Sox that was not of Bobby Valentine's making: the bullpen.
The man who was supposed to be Valentine's closer, Andrew Bailey, went out with a freak thumb injury in spring training and needed surgery. The man who might have bailed Valentine out, Daniel Bard, was committed to becoming a starter, in part because the Red Sox harbored some reservations about whether he had a closer's mentality. The man who was chosen on the last day of camp to be the closer, Alfredo Aceves, had never been one; the man who did have closer experience, Mark Melancon, was trusted by no one, least of all his manager; and the primary left-handed option, Andrew Miller, was still an unproven quantity.
The implosion was not long in coming. Try Opening Day in Detroit, when the Red Sox staged an improbable ninth-inning rally to tie it against Tigers ace Justin Verlander, only to lose when Melancon and Aceves coughed up a run in the bottom of the ninth.
One game? Sure, but two days later, Aceves gave up a game-tying, three-run home run to Miguel Cabrera in the ninth, and after the Sox had scored twice to go ahead in the 11th, Melancon gave up three in the bottom of the inning, the last two on a walk-off home run by Alex Avila.
The tone was set. Before the season was over, Melancon had been shipped down to the minors and Aceves, only intermittently reliable, was openly defying the manager, ultimately getting suspended by Valentine after a stormy confrontation in the manager's office.
Now, flash forward to Monday in Yankee Stadium, where new manager John Farrell ran out five relievers who held the New York Yankees to a single hit and no runs over the last four innings of an 8-2 pasting.
"I think they had a sense down there how we were going to play this out," Farrell said afterward. "To get that many guys in the game and throw strikes, that was a very good thing."
It might even be the start of something special.
"Great to have three closers, basically, for seven, eight and nine," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, ticking off the last three innings of a game. "We have three guys who can close a game for any team."
Only three? Joel Hanrahan, the de facto closer who came in after the Red Sox opened a six-run lead in the eighth, thinks that might be on the conservative side. By his count, the number might be close to double that, reciting the names of Bailey, Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Aceves, Miller and himself.
"Everybody down there can do whatever they want, pitch in any situation," Hanrahan said. "Whatever it takes to win, that's our mentality. We've got enough guys who can handle it."
|After Andrew Bailey ended the seventh with a big strikeout, Junichi Tazawa finished the eighth by getting Ichiro Suzuki on a comebacker double play.|
Hanrahan is no dope. He knows it could go the other way as soon as Wednesday, when these teams reconvene. But for one game, it worked the way Ben Cherington had drawn it up this winter, when he traded for Hanrahan and signed free agent Uehara to complement the power arms he already had.
Uehara needed just five pitches to breeze through a 1-2-3 sixth. Miller walked the first two batters he faced in the seventh, then regrouped and struck out the next two, whiffing Eduardo Nunez and feeding Robinson Cano a steady diet of sliders before blowing a 97 mph fastball by him for a third strike.
Danger still lurked, however, in the form of Kevin Youkilis, placed in the tantalizing position of inflicting a mortal blow on his former team in his first game wearing pinstripes. Farrell waved to his bullpen, and in came Bailey, who hasn't uttered a peep about being displaced as closer just a year after he was acquired from Oakland to fill that role.
And now here he was, receiving a summons in the seventh, which some might view as a comedown. Not Bailey.
"About a week or two ago, I was talking to our bullpen coach, Dana [LeVangie], and he said, 'Hey, in our meetings, they said there may be spots in the seventh inning where they need you to get a big out,'" Bailey said.
"I said, 'I love those situations with the game on the line.' From day one when I was out in Oakland, I always said a lot of games are won early, in the seventh and eighth innings.
"My mentality doesn't change, no matter what the inning is."
His approach against Youkilis?
"Throw the ball as hard as you can," Bailey said with a smile. "That's what I do, obviously, anyway.
"Getting ahead in the count is key, and expand [the strike zone] from there. We know him pretty good over here. I threw a couple curveballs we let him swing over and then elevated it. We were able to execute."
Youkilis went down swinging on a 95 mph fastball, the threat had been repelled, and Tazawa, who had warmed up the first time in the fourth inning when starter Jon Lester got into a jam, pitched the eighth, inducing countryman Ichiro Suzuki to hit a comebacker that he converted into an inning-ending double play.
"Ideally, we were set up for Bailey in the eighth," Farrell said, "but the way Taz has emerged, we have confidence to go to him. We've got some ability to match up and get swings and misses late in the game."
By the time Hanrahan entered, Yankee Stadium was startlingly empty, the Bombers down by six.
"It definitely was a different vibe from what I remember seeing on TV of Yankee Stadium," Hanrahan said. "Obviously, they've got some injuries going, it's cold and windy and a little bit rainy. I think the rain sent some people out.
"It doesn't really matter. The fans will be back Wednesday and fill it up."
And the Sox's bullpen will be primed and ready.
"It was nice to start this year off a lot better, personally, too, than it was last year," Bailey said. "If we keep doing what we can do down there, today was just a glimpse of what you're going to see the whole season."