The Red Sox finished 11th in the American League in pitching with a 4.52 ERA in 2005, and their relievers ranked last in the American League with 27-22 record and a 5.17 ERA. What is encouraging for the club is that there were similar concerns about the Red Sox relievers in 2003 and 2004, but the bullpen was a primary reason the Red Sox made it to the American League Championship Series two seasons ago and won the World Series last season.
"It's funny, in '03 and '04 our bullpen became our biggest strength, our biggest asset in the postseason," Epstein said. "Nobody would have seen that coming from the postseason. There's no reason that can't happen again."
This year's version has seen its ups and downs. The shape of the bullpen changed dramatically on Aug. 23 when Curt Schilling returned to the starting rotation. It was a change for the better.
Mike Timlin has been effective as the closer, posting 12 saves and a 4.00 ERA in 18 innings since his first appearance in the role. He finished August with two saves and went 1-1 with a 3.65 ERA with 11 saves in 12 1/3 innings in September.
He had a little help from his friends.
Rookie hurler John Papelbon recovered from a slow start in the bullpen and went on to post a 1.35 ERA in 13 1/3 innings in September. Papelbon, who started the season at Double-A, made three starts for the Red Sox earlier in the season and could be poised for a return to the rotation in 2006. How he does this postseason could factor into his future role.
"He's done an outstanding job for us," Epstein said. "He has poise beyond his years. He's not afraid. He goes out there and lays it all on the line. He's earned the respect of the veterans on this team and he's played a vital role for us."
"Naïve" and "raw" are words often used to describe Papelbon. Rarely is the young man mentioned without the word "talented" popping up more than once. In addition to a live arm, he's also said to have quite an inquisitive mind.
"He asks a lot of questions and he is very interested in accomplish what [relievers] accomplish," Timlin said. "He's been able to incorporate some of the stuff he has learned from all of his questions. He's been pitching well and he's been pitching well all year. That's why he is here."
Left-handed specialist Mike Myers and right-handed specialist Chad Bradford have also performed well and give the Red Sox more reasons to be optimistic during the playoffs. Myers finished the season with a 3-1 record and 3.13 ERA in 37 1/3 innings. Bradford went 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA in 23 1/3 innings.
Add jack-of-all trades Bronson Arroyo to the bullpen mix and the Red Sox enter the series feeling quite confident in their relievers, regardless of what the numbers say. For his part, Arroyo's number say quite a bit.
He is 14-9 with a 4.56 ERA as a starter and 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA coming out of the bullpen this season. For his career, he is 2-4 with a 3.97 ERA.
"We get to take a starter and put him in the bullpen and Bronson Arroyo is probably as qualified to do that as any pitcher in baseball," Epstein said. "We have a couple of hot hands right now [with] Timlin and Papelbon at the back end are throwing extremely well and our matchup guys have done a nice job the last couple of weeks."