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Bullpen Strategy Works Out Fine for Boston

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 22, 2007

BOSTON, Oct. 21 -- At different points Sunday night, the following men rose and threw in the Boston Red Sox bullpen: Josh Beckett, Hideki Okajima, Mike Timlin, Beckett again, and then Jonathan Papelbon. Beckett and Timlin never appeared on the field, Okajima and Papelbon combined to record 12 momentous outs, and even after he won a pennant, Red Sox Manager Terry Francona was left to explain the machinations.

Never mind that the final score of the seventh and decisive game of the American League Championship Series shows what appears to be a blowout 11-2 victory for the Red Sox over the Cleveland Indians. Any New Englander who says Monday morning that, in the seventh and eighth innings, he or she remained calm is flat-out fibbing, because the bullpen was going to determine whether the Red Sox held on to or frittered away a narrow lead, and Boston hadn't yet exploded for a six-run eighth.

"They were right there," Papelbon said, "and we had to stop them."

And they stayed right there, right at two runs, because the Boston bullpen kept them that way, albeit not with the normal flow of a game in, say, mid-August. How different was this? The evidence came from Francona, who said the Red Sox were prepared to have Beckett -- the series MVP, who went 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA -- close out the game.

"If you've got somebody like myself in the bullpen and I start warming up," Beckett said, "there's a situation that has me coming in the game."

Rewind for a moment. Starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka lasted five innings and departed with a 3-2 lead, and for much of the night, it appeared, as Francona said, "like maybe we would have to make it stand."

The expectation throughout Boston on Sunday was that Beckett would be willing and able to pitch in Game 7, though he had just two days off. He already has a legendary four-inning relief stint in Game 7 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, when he came in on two days' rest for the Florida Marlins and delivered four innings of one-run ball, sending the Chicago Cubs home.

But there were only certain situations in which Beckett would be used.

"There was talk before the game about not creating a spot for him," Francona said. "But if we needed him, we would go to him."

Thus, he would not be brought in in the middle of an inning. The first move, in the sixth, was to Okajima, a rookie who pitched brilliantly in the first half -- posting a 0.83 ERA before the all-star break -- but tired in September, warranting a two-week shutdown.

The late-season rest appeared to do Okajima well. He was perfect in the postseason entering Sunday, four appearances lasting 5 1/3 innings in which he had allowed just two hits and no runs.

"He's been so important for us," backup catcher Doug Mirabelli said.

And he worked a clean sixth. There remained nine outs to go. Okajima returned to the mound for the seventh, got an out, and then Kenny Lofton reached on an error. Papelbon -- who had never recorded a six-out save in his career -- was the only man throwing in the bullpen, and there were eight outs still to go.

" 'Okie' was throwing the ball very well," Francona said, "and we knew we'd go to 'Pap' in the seventh and eighth." If that happened, "we maybe would close with Beckett," he added.

The most tense moment followed, though, with Papelbon and Beckett still in the bullpen, with Okajima still on the mound. After Franklin Gutierrez reached on a single to left -- a single that might have scored Lofton had he not been held by third base coach Joel Skinner -- Okajima calmly got Casey Blake to hit a grounder to third. There, Mike Lowell started a 5-4-3 double play, and nearly all the Red Sox pumped their fists.

"They just kind of took off from there," Cleveland Manager Eric Wedge said.

They took off despite leaving in Okajima to start the eighth, by which time the Red Sox led 5-2. Okajima allowed two base runners. Papelbon came on. A few 98-mph heaters later, that threat was over. And when Papelbon recorded the final out in the ninth, it was Beckett who sprinted across the outfield to celebrate -- an unemployed reliever for a day, going on to the World Series because his bullpen mates were so good.

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