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April 06. 2013 10:58PM

Dave D'Onfrio's Sox Beat: Bullpen arms provide relief

WITH YANKEES star Robinson Cano representing the tying run in the seventh inning of last Monday's season opener, and the count having run to 2-and-2, Andrew Miller needed to make a pitch.

Ninety-seven miles per hour. Above the waist. Strikeout.

With a one-run lead on Friday night, with the tying run in scoring position and one out in the eighth inning, Andrew Bailey twice needed to make a pitch.

Ninety-six. Two times in a row. Ground out, fly out, threat thwarted.

Then with the heart of the Blue Jays order due when he was summoned to protect a two-run, ninth-inning lead, Joel Hanrahan needed to make a series of pitches.

Ninety-eight to retire Jose Reyes. Ninety-nine to strikeout Emilio Bonifacio. Ninety-nine, again, to get Edwin Encarnacion. Ballgame over. Red Sox win.

There was much to be encouraged about as the Sox won three of their first four games, and got off to their best start in five years - from the attitude, to the effort, to their collective ability to perform under pressure.

But among the most impressive features of the season's first week, and perhaps the single facet we've seen so far that could truly be a major difference maker all season long, is the strength of the bullpen. And, more specifically, the strength of their arms.

Though the radar doesn't reveal the whole truth about a pitcher, and sometimes a guy's ability to light up the gun proves to be nothing more than a tease. But if a hurler has a big arm that's capable of firing bullets, and he knows how harness that hard stuff, it can be an incredible weapon for a team to have at the end of games. And every indication thus far is that the Red Sox have a full arsenal in that area.

Through Friday, the average fastball that had been fired by Boston's bullpen registered at 94 mph. That ranked second-fastest in all of baseball, trailing only the Royals - who, not coincidentally, also led the majors with a 0.75 earned run average by its relievers - and clocking in at more than 2 mph quicker than the major-league average of 91.9. It's also a full mile per hour faster than the Sox showed last season, when their 'pen ranked in the middle of the pack by that measure, ranking 6th in the American League.

Again, that number is by no means the be-all, end-all. For example, Koji Uehara's typical heater tops out at 89, and his first two appearances saw him record six outs in a grand total of 14 pitches because he's reluctant in the way he pounds the strike zone.

But it's worth noting that each of Uehara's first two appearances came in the sixth inning - and it's just as relevant to point out the radar readings of the guys who've followed him in those games. Entering Saturday, Junichi Tazawa's average fastball sat at 94.3 mph. Bailey's at 95. Miller's at 95.2. And Hanrahan's at 96.7.

Based on his early usage, it's clear that John Farrell would prefer to use his power arms at the end of games, and that approach makes perfect sense. When it comes to protecting a lead late in games, a pitcher is often afforded little wiggle room, to the point that sometimes simply getting an out isn't good enough.

Sometimes a pitcher needs a strikeout in order to escape a sticky situation - and in that predicament, power is a huge asset. If a pitcher has the ability to get himself in position for a punch-out, or at least keep the hitter uncomfortable, that little extra giddy up can sometimes be the difference between winning or losing the battle.

In the late innings, that can mean winning or losing the game. It did this past week.

And, fully stocked, the Red Sox hope it does many more times over the months to come.
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As a result of their ability to get on base, the Sox have driven up the pitch count for their opponents. Entering Saturday, they had seen more pitches than all but three other AL teams - however, at 3.72, they were second from the bottom in pitches seen per plate appearance. That's skewed somewhat by Thursday's loss to the efficient Andy Pettitte, though the juxtaposition of those stats speaks to how successful the Sox have been in making the most of their at-bats.

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Stat of the week: The Sox led after 22 of the first 36 innings they played this season (and trailed after only eight). Last year, they led 22 of their first 82 frames.


Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.

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