Of all the things the Anaheim Angels thought they might have to worry about in the playoffs, their bullpen wasn't one of them.
Winners of the American League West, the Angels had arguably the deepest and most dominant bullpen of the eight playoff teams.
How good was the Anaheim bullpen during the regular season? The fact that the Angels lack a lefty reliever never was a factor.
But through the first two games of the American League Division Series with the Boston Red Sox, Anaheim's relievers have been part of the problem, not the solution.
Though Game 1 got away from the Angels early, the bullpen didn't help matters. Scot Shields was charged with a run in relief of starter Jarrod Washburn, and later Ramon Ortiz was also nicked for a run.
It got worse in Game 2 -- much worse. Coming into a tie game, super set-up man Francisco Rodriguez was atypically wild with a walk, two wild pitches and a hit batsman. The Sox snapped a 3-3 tie against Rodriguez in the seventh, then blew the game open with four more runs off Brendan Donnelly, causing to Donnelly to assess his performance with brutal candor.
"I stunk," he said flatly.
Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia was a little more diplomatic in anticipation of Game 3, saying of Wednesday's group meltdown: "It's not really characteristic of us. If we get another [lead], these guys are going to hold it. I know them."
Scioscia has enough problems, trailing the series 2-0 and having to win two games in Fenway Park, where the Red Sox had the AL's second-best home record, just to force a Game 5 back in Anaheim.
His team's defense and execution have been sloppy. He lost two regular position players (Adam Kennedy and Tim Salmon) in the final weeks of the season. And hobbled cleanup hitter Garret Anderson is still looking for his first hit of the series.
But bullpen woes? Scioscia hadn't budgeted for that.
"We expect to do better," said Shields. "As a bullpen, we feel if we get a lead in the sixth or seventh, the way Donnelly, Frankie and Percival can take charge, we should have that game."
It would help for Anaheim's starters to take the club deeper into games. Washburn was knocked out in the fourth inning of Game 1, and thanks to an extraordinarily high pitch count, Bartolo Colon was done after six innings in Game 2.
The Red Sox's ability to take the lead against Rodriguez, whose stuff can be literally unhittable, may pay future benefits in the series. Armed with their Game 2 success, the sight of Rodriguez trotting out of the bullpen won't be quite so intimidating.
"We did some damage and ... not only did we get the lead, but we tacked on a little bit," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona, "and somewhere down the road, that may help us. You guys asked me the same thing about [Mariano] Rivera in New York. This bullpen has been somewhat invincible and we scored some runs [in Game 2]. That's huge."
To date, it's been the Boston bullpen that has been far more effective. Through two games, Red Sox relievers have faced 14 hitters and retired 13 -- seven by strikeout.
"Our bullpen has been doing a great job all year," said first baseman Kevin Millar. "We'll stand up to anyone's bullpen as far as that goes."
Righthander Mike Timlin, as was the case last postseason, has been the central figure.
Timlin mowed down the Angels with precision in Game 1, retiring the bottom third of the Anaheim order in the eighth before finishing with a flourish, striking out the side in the ninth.
Timlin took over for Pedro Martinez in the eighth in Game 2 Wednesday. After yielding a leadoff single to Darin Erstad, he faced the dangerous Vladimir Guerrero with the Sox clinging to a one-run lead. In what could be the most critical at-bat of the series so far, Timlin struck out the outfielder, causing Guerrero to grab his bat in mid-air in a show of frustration.
From there, Francona summoned lefty specialist Mike Myers, who overmatched Anderson with his side-winding, Frisbee-like slider. Finally, closer Keith Foulke caught Troy Glaus looking at a called third strike, then got the Angels in order in the ninth after his teammates had exploded for four runs in the top of the inning to provide some cushion.
Over the last two years, Timlin has retired 35 of 37 postseason hitters he's faced; lefty Alan Embree has been nearly as effective, allowing just four hits over seven scoreless innings.
Their work in the first two games has served to allay any fears about overuse during the season. Timlin made more than 70 appearances for the third straight season, and Embree pitched in 71 games.
But this year, like the one before, the two set-up men appear to have saved their best innings for last.
Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.