The starting pitching has been decent most of the year, and lately it's been excellent. Bronson Arroyo had a perfect game going through five innings last night, and when he left after seven had given up only three hits and one run, on his way to improving to 13-9. That's a good sign as the Sox enter the stretch run for a chance to defend their World Series title.
The concern all year long, however, has been the bullpen pitching. Alan Embree, John Halama, and Blaine Neal were all unceremoniously released, and Matt Mantia was lost for the season due to injury. Curt Schilling returned to the rotation, Keith Foulke has remained ineffective and lacks confidence, so it's been left primarily to Mike Timlin, Mike Meyers, and Chad Bradford to hold down the fort. But somewhere along the way came a nice surprise. A 24-year-old rookie pitcher.
Jonathan Papelbon threw another scoreless inning on Saturday, and has yet to allow a run in five appearances this month. Pitching the eighth, Papelbon recorded two outs before yielding a double to Jason Kendall, who advanced to third when Edgar Renteria made yet another error (his 28th) while attempting to field a relay from Trot Nixon. The big righty then stiffened his resolve, getting Mark Kotsay to fly to Manny Ramirez to end the inning.
Earlier this week, Papelbon earned his first major league victory by pitching three hitless innings of an 11 inning affair against the Blue Jays in Toronto.
"He came through our Minor League system and kind of flew through it," said manager Terry Francona. "Everybody raved about his makeup, his willingness to compete and his maturity. I think we were prepared for him to be [pitching this well] at some point."
But this soon? The youngster has made 11 appearances this season, including three starts, and now has an impressive 2.67 ERA. In 27 innings, Papelbon has given up just 27 hits while striking out 25 opposing batters. Pitching that well in the heat of a pennant race is incredible for a guy who started the season in A ball. Yet, Papelbon has been unflappable in pressure situations. ''We're asking a lot of him," said Francona. ''I see no reason not to."
His ability to rise to the occasion has earned the respect of his teammates. That's not easy on a veteran team that is coming off a World Series Championship.
''He comes in consistently throwing the ball hard and where he wants to," said Arroyo. ''I'm amazed each time he goes out there."
And Papelbon's consistency has softened the loss of last year's bullpen hero Foulke. Papaelbon has now usurped Foulke, and everyone else, as the set-up man, or bridge, to Timlin.
"Papelbon is . . . realizing he's going to be in there in the seventh, eighth innings in crucial times. I feel that has definitely helped us out late in ballgames", added Arroyo.
Saturday's win put the Red Sox a season-high 26 games over .500 for a second time this season. Now at 50-23, the team has baseball's best home record for a .685 winning percentage. The Sox have won at least 50 home games for the 13th time in club history and the third season in a row. Previously, only the 1986-88 Red Sox had achieved that distinction.
As Dorothy once so famously said, there's no place like home.
Copyright © 2005 Kennedy's Commentary. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.