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Sox bullish about their top-notch bullpen

Red Sox bullish about their bullpen

BOSTON -- The first critical moment for the 2007 Red Sox took place on a March afternoon in Fort Myers, Fla. Starting pitcher Jonathan Papelbon hadn't slept well in days. His burning desire to go back to closing was literally keeping him awake at night, so he shared those thoughts with captain Jason Varitek and manager Terry Francona.

A resolution was quickly reached, and Papelbon went back to the role where he became an instant star a year ago.

As it turned out, Papelbon was no rookie fluke in 2006. He was again an All-Star this season, and there's no mystery to his greatness. Papelbon, who had 84 strikeouts in 58 1/3 innings and converted 37 of his 40 save opportunities, simply overpowered hitters in fearless fashion.

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The flamethrowing right-hander, who graced a cover of Sports Illustrated recently, has been nothing short of dominant. So when you size up the bullpen of the American League East champion Red Sox heading into October, it starts with the anchor, who is every bit as reliable to his team as he is intimidating to the opposition.

"It starts with the strength at the end -- with Pap," said Varitek. "Pap is the end to the bullpen. It allows us to mix and match a lot of different people to get us there."

For once the Red Sox, who open their AL Division Series vs. the Angels on Wednesday, get to Papelbon, they feel fairly safe that they're going to win.

And perhaps the reason the Red Sox have been so successful this year and have such high hopes for October is that their bullpen not only has a back-end star, but several key contributors in the setup role.

The Red Sox were bounced in the ALDS in 2005 by the White Sox in part because they had a shallow bullpen. And that same reason left them out of October altogether last season. This year? The Sox feel good about getting the type of relief they need in the high-intensity atmosphere of the postseason.

"I'd put our bullpen against anybody else's bullpen going into the postseason," Papelbon said. "If it comes down to the matter of a bullpen preserving a lead or helping to get a win, then I like our chances."

So if the decision of Papelbon going back to closing was the first key to the success of Boston's bullpen, the second was the unlikely emergence of Hideki Okajima. The 31-year-old lefty was an above-average reliever during his years in Japan, but not all that heralded. In fact, in the spring, he was completely lost amid the buzz over Daisuke Matsuzaka.

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Aside from a late-season slump and dead-arm period -- both of which Okajima got out of in time for the playoffs -- he has been a rock for Boston.

"He has surpassed all of our expectations from when he first signed with the Red Sox," said Boston pitching coach John Farrell. "He is one of the main reasons we've had so much success with the pitching staff, being able to bridge the starters to Papelbon."

The man who was supposed to turn the strength of the Red Sox into an overpowering force was Eric Gagne, who was acquired in a trade with the Rangers on July 31.

A star closer throughout his career, Gagne's adjustment to being a setup man has been anything but easy. He struggled mightily after first joining the Red Sox. In fact, Gagne worked so hard to fix his problems that he developed arm woes due to the extra side work. Time ran out on the regular season before Gagne could get on a full-fledged roll. But he was unscored on in his last five outings. This, following a forgettable eighth inning in Toronto on Sept. 18, when he gave up three runs with two outs to cost Jon Lester a win.

Expect Gagne to pitch important innings, though Okajima will probably be the primary setup man at the outset of the postseason.

The Red Sox have two other indispensable members of their bullpen. One is an October regular in right-hander Mike Timlin. The 41-year-old won two World Series rings for the Blue Jays (1992-93), and he played a key role in getting the Red Sox there in '04. After an injury-filled 2006, Timlin again seemed to be in the breakdown lane earlier this season.

But Timlin settled down to have a terrific second half, posting a 2.64 ERA in his final 28 outings.

Then there's Manny Delcarmen, who began the year in the Minor Leagues, only to return to the Majors for good on June 17 and become one of Francona's most trusted relievers. Backed by mid-90s heat and a gorgeous curveball, Delcarmen has matured this season to the point where he commands all his pitches. His 2.05 ERA in 44 outings goes a long way toward outlining how good he's been.

Southpaw Javy Lopez is the specialist of the group, as he'll be brought in mostly just to face left-handed hitters.

All in all, the Red Sox have a group they feel comfortable with in the 'pen.

"It's awfully tough to win without a bullpen," said Francona. "We kind of saw both ends of that the last few years. [What] guys like [Keith] Foulke and Timlin and that group did for a while there was incredible. Then we got ourselves in a situation where we got roughed up a little bit the next year. If you can get your bullpen on a roll, it certainly enhances your chances for winning. If they pitch like they can, we have a chance to have some success."

The success ends with Papelbon, but he definitely can't do it alone.

"I've said this a million times: I'm nothing without my bullpen," said Papelbon. "A lot of my success goes to the guys in the bullpen who have been there all year long and helped me have a successful season."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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