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September 18. 2013 11:20PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Bullpen is taking shape

BOSTON -- After 152 games, almost 10,000 pitches, 570 pitching changes, 21 relievers, 10 trips to the disabled list, five exchanges of the closer's role, two trades, and having got to the point where their magic number to clinch the American League East had been whittled to three, by Wednesday night the Red Sox still didn't really know what their bullpen would look like come October.

But they were getting closer.

They weren't getting to the point where roles were defined, nor were they getting to the point where they could set forth with full confidence in what the results would be. If they were at either of those points, the picture would've been clearer weeks ago.

However, it did appear they were getting to the point that they at least have an idea of who will be in that bullpen for the postseason — and the realization that with this group roles and responsibilities are probably never going to defined, but rather assigned on the basis of the needs and matchups of the moment.

It's not ideal by any stretch, and in a season when so much has gone their way, and they've done so much right in order to remake what had long become a moribund situation by this stage last September, it's a reminder that the one lingering question about the Sox' legitimacy as contenders is the inconsistency of a relief corps initially ravaged by injury.

That question might've been answered if Joel Hanrahan or Andrew Bailey had stayed healthy and pitched to expectations, or even if Andrew Miller hadn't been lost to an ankle injury just as he appeared to be harnessing the potential that has in the past earned him comparisons to Randy Johnson. But none of the three has thrown a pitch since the All-Star break, and now they're all just spectators waiting to see how it all plays out and how the pieces fit together.

Everybody knows how it'll look at the back end, where Koji Uehara has been the best closer in baseball since assuming the job in July. Before he surrendered a run on Tuesday, he'd thrown 30 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings, and before the triple that led to that run, he'd retired 37 consecutive hitters. The Sox have no hesitation about handing him the ball with a lead at the end of games.

The issues come with getting to that point.

Last week in Tampa Bay, over the course of a three-game series with the Rays, the Red Sox had opportunity to make nine pitching changes while the gap between the teams was no more than two runs in either direction. John Farrell summoned eight different pitchers in those situations. Uehara pitched twice, but the message was unmistakable: The opportunity to pitch important innings was still very much available, and these were auditions for those roles. The manager wanted to see what he had in close games against a good team.

And now it's starting to look like the postseason 'pen is taking shape — in terms of personnel, if not particular usage. It doesn't look like either Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster or Drake Britton has done enough to convince the manager that his lack of experience is something he'll need to overlook because of ability. And Felix Doubront's status as the sixth starter, instead of being shuffled to the bullpen, would seem to indicate they're not in a hurry to prepare him to work as a reliever in the postseason.

That suggests the long-relief job would belong to Ryan Dempster, who has worked out of the bullpen before, and who has posted a 3.09 earned run average over his last four starts. Given his experience, his gritty demeanor on the mound, the fact he's pitching well, and the fact he's capable of getting a strikeout if need be, he makes sense as the mop-up, early-inning arm.

Beyond that, the personnel looks like it'll be righties Junichi Tazawa, Brandon Workman, joined by lefties Craig Breslow and Franklin Morales, plus maybe a third southpaw in Matt Thornton — if the team overlooks his struggles to keep an 11th pitcher over a second reserve infielder — but even still it's still mostly unknown how they'd all be used.

Tazawa was the eighth-inning power arm at the start of the year, but as his dominance faded it looked as though Farrell gave Workman the opportunity to take over that right-handed role — but he hasn't been convincing either.

So in the end, the onus of getting the biggest outs along the bridge to Uehara might fall on Breslow. He's not the prototype in that position, but after bailing Workman out of a second-and-third, no-outs jam on Tuesday, he had an 0.53 ERA, and opponents were hitting .151 against him, in 20 games since Aug. 1. He's effective against righties and lefties, he's pitch-efficient, and he's done his best work in high-leverage situations.

"He's been doing that all year. He's been one of our top guys out of the pen," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said — and though he can't say the same of Morales, who spent a big chunk of the season on the disabled list, Morales might wind up playing an enormous role, too.

Opponents are 1-for-18 with a single and a walk against the lefty since Aug. 30, and as he's got healthy he's looked increasingly dominant. "His last seven or eight times out, we're seeing consistent velocity with what he's pitched with the last couple of years," Farrell said recently. "To see the power that he's throwing with, that's very encouraging. He adds another dimension to our bullpen."

That dimension might mean he throws full innings, or it might be entering when the Sox need a strikeout, or it might be as more of a lefty specialist (considering they entered Wednesday hitting .167 against him).

Frankly, at this point nobody really knows where he fits into the equation — or where anyone other than Uehara fits in, really. And we likely won't until the games play out, until the situations present themselves and until Farrell makes his decisions.

Ideally, after all these games, all these innings, all these pitches, the picture would be clearer and better defined. It's still not yet for the Red Sox. But it's getting closer.

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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