Things looking up for Red Sox bullpen

May, 3, 2012
When the Boston Red Sox called up Clayton Mortensen on Wednesday, it was because they needed an arm for the bullpen and, as manager Bobby Valentine said before that night’s game against Oakland, the right-hander was the freshest arm available in Pawtucket.

So that accounted for Mortensen’s promotion.

[+] EnlargeClayton Mortensen
Mark L. Baer/US PresswireClayton Mortensen had a brilliant Red Sox debut Wednesday, striking out six in three scoreless innings.
It was presumed that when Aaron Cook is activated Saturday to start that day’s game against Baltimore in place of Josh Beckett, who is bothered by a strained lat, Mortensen would be returned to Pawtucket in a simple roster swap.

But with reports that it will be shortstop Jose Iglesias sent down to Pawtucket to make room for Cook, it looks like Mortensen will be in for a more extended stay with the Red Sox. The 27-year-old turned in a dazzling three-inning shutout performance Wednesday night against the Athletics, one of the four organizations he has pitched for since the Cardinals made him a first-round draft choice in 2007.

The 6-foot-4, 187-pound right hander surrendered a single to the first batter he faced, Cliff Pennington, a former teammate on the Athletics, and then uncorked a wild pitch. After that, though, Mortensen was lights-out, retiring the next nine batters he faced, racking up six strikeouts in a masterful outing, continuing his fine work (0.90 earned-run average in 10 innings) at Pawtucket.

While Mortensen’s effort was a bit of a bolt out of the blue, the fact is that the Red Sox bullpen has improved dramatically since its collective implosion during a five-game losing streak at Fenway Park at the tail end of the team’s first homestand of the season.

And as the Red Sox (11-13, last place in the American League East) gird for a three-game visit from the high-flying Orioles (16-9, second place in the AL East) that’s a step in the right direction in a season of inconsistency on the mound and at the plate.

Since blowing a 9-0 lead and suffering a demoralizing 15-9 loss to the New York Yankees on April 21, the Sox relievers have been virtually untouchable. Over this 10-game stretch, the relief corps has pitched to the tune of a miniscule 0.64 ERA, permitting only two earned runs in 28 innings of work. And one of those runs came in Rich Hill’s first big-league outing since the left-hander underwent Tommy John surgery last year as the he stared down a few butterflies and knocked off a little rust.

The bullpen has given up only 21 hits, whiffed 31 and walked six in the last 10 games.

The turnaround has involved everyone, the same pitchers who were maligned during the first homestand. And on Wednesday night, while the Red Sox were beaten by Oakland, 4-2, it was the bullpen duo of Matt Albers and Mortsensen that provided airtight relief and gave them a chance to come back.

Albers took over for starter Daniel Bard in the sixth. Oakland had runners at second and third with one out and a 4-0 lead. Albers slipped a called third strike past Eric Sogard and retired Coco Crisp on a comebacker, stranding two runners. Then it was the Mortensen show.

Mortensen entered the season with a big-league career record of 4-8 and a 5.12 ERA in 24 appearances, including 13 starts, with the Cardinals, Athletics and Rockies. The 27-year-old was obtained by Boston from Colorado in exchange for shortstop Marco Scutaro in what was considered at the time a $6 million salary dump for the Red Sox. He made quite a statement with his Wednesday outing, though.

“He was fantastic,” said Valentine of Mortsensen after Wednesday’s game. “His offspeed stuff in bullpens in spring training looked terrific. Then in games he seemed to elevate it a little. Often we said if it’s down it’s really tough. It was down tonight and it was really tough.”

Especially after the first batter he faced.

“It was not the way I wanted to start off,” said Mortensen. “You just have to take a deep breath and get back in there and mix some pitches up. It definitely helps the confidence. I just tried to put a stop to things and give us a chance to get back in the game.”

He did that and now, with Cook’s arrival imminent, Mortensen might have made any decision to return him to Pawtucket a difficult one. And in the meantime, the Red Sox bullpen is looking a lot sturdier than it did two weeks ago.



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