Walk-Off Pitching

David Ortiz with a walk-off home run, a familiar and dramatic tune for Red Sox victories. But it is not the real theme song for the new Red Sox. Three innings of shut-down relief pitching is.

It’s fun to re-live the days of yore when Papi drove in the late inning runs to seal a Red Sox victory, but it is not what the Red Sox do best today.  After the first game blowout, the Texas series settled down into the battle of the bullpens: Texas won game 2 and Boston won game 3.  That could well describe the pattern for success in 2013.

Before Michael Kirkman’s flat delivery the Rangers had solved Big Papi with inside stuff from their potent left-handers.  In his previous two at-bats, Ortiz left runners on base in scoring position.  The Rangers had every right to believe he would strand them again. But—stuff happens.

A strong bullpen depends on “stuff” not happening in the late innings.  The Texas bullpen avoided the stuff in Game 2 and the Red Sox bullpen avoided the stuff in Game 3.  Koje Uhehara allowed the game-winning double in the middle game of the series, but shut down Texas with style in the final game.i-1

The Red Sox offense, on the other hand, left runners on base in every inning of the third game, revealing their weakness in situational hitting. What happened in game one was a freak of baseball, setting all kinds of Texas records for defensive futility.  That is not what to expect in future meetings of these teams. The same could be said of games with the White Sox, the Orioles and the Yankees, all of whom play the Sox tough.

If we are now seriously considering the Red Sox as pennant contenders ( who actually said that in Spring Training?), then we can gauge their progress by the consistency of their bullpen.  The starting rotation is as good as any and the hitting is good for getting runners on base. But the fate of this team in the late innings seems to hang on its bullpen.

The walk-off heroes of the future are named Uhehara, Tazawa, Miller and Bailey. If they can avoid the “stuff” of late innings, the Red Sox will contend.

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