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October 26, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

World Series Game Two Report

by John Perrotto

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BOSTON-There isn't a player on either the Boston Red Sox or Colorado Rockies who isn't tired by now. While the adrenaline of playing in a World Series can mask fatigue for a while, it eventually cannot take away all the tiredness, aches and pains that come with a season that began with spring training in mid-February, included playing 162 regular-season games over the course of six months, and then high-pressure postseason games through October. So there is little doubt that two tired teams arrived in Denver early this morning after an all-night flight from Boston following a Game Two that took a pain-staking three hours and 39 minutes to complete despite only three runs being scored.

However, the Red Sox's two primary relievers are as rested as a bullpenner can be in the final in the final days of October and that is a big reason why Boston held on for a 2-1 win on last night at Fenway Park to take a 2-0 lead in the series. "At this time of the season, all the horses have to be ready to go to the post whenever you're asked," said venerable Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin. Timlin appeared in his first postseason with the Toronto Blue Jays back in 1992, and is the de facto captain of the Boston bullpen. "Our horses are still going strong, though. Maybe we should call that place where we warm up in right-center field 'The Horsepen.'"

Maybe they should because it was a pair of thoroughbreds that protected the precarious one-run lead left behind by starter (and eventual winner) Curt Schilling in the sixth inning. Hideki Okajima, a 31-year-old left-hander who spent 12 years pitching in his native Japan before joining the Red Sox as a free agent prior to this season, came on with one out in the sixth after Schilling weaved his way through 5 1/3 innings, allowing one run and on hits. What was especially critical for Schilling allowing just that lone run was his holding the Rockies to a 1-for-11 team performance with runners on base, and hitless in four at-bats with runners in scoring position.

Okajama retired all seven batters he faced, striking out four. Then 26-year-old flamethrower Jonathan Papelbon finished up, coming on in relief of Okajima with two out and none on in the eighth. He was almost dehorned by Matt Holliday's fourth hit in as many at-bats, a thigh-high line drive back through the box, but Papelbon made sure he didn't lose any important body parts by promptly picking Holliday off at first base-the first pickoff of his big league career, no less-to end the inning. Papelbon followed with a 1-2-3 ninth for the save.

"It was the Pappajima Show," Schilling said with a smile. "That was just phenomenal to watch. A 2-1 game in the fifth that ends up 2-1 with both of these offenses is a testament to how incredibly efficient and dominating these bullpens were tonight. Okajima was perfect, just absolutely perfect, every single pitch and that's a helluva lineup to go through. Then Pap comes in and his stuff is a little better now than it was in the regular season and that's saying a lot. Those two guys were the story. Those guys were, much like all year, dominating. We had to have it, and they both answered the bell."

Pappajima has answered the bell throughout the postseason, as neither half of the combo has allowed a run. Okajima has pitched six times and 9 2/3 innings, while Papelbon has worked in five games and thrown 7 2/3 innings. The pair were already clearly their best relievers in the regular season; Papelbon's 5.143 WXRL and Okajima's 4.429 far outdistanced Manny Delcarmen's 1.652.

Papelbon recorded 35 saves and had a microscopic 0.92 ERA in 68 1/3 innings as a rookie last season, but missed the final month of the 2006 season because of a chronic problem where his shoulder pops out of its socket. The Red Sox decided after the year that Papelbon's long-term health would be better served by working in the starting rotation, where his outings could be more closely structured and his workload more carefully monitored.

While that plan was solid in theory, reality got in the way in spring training, when free agent acquisition Joel Pineiro showed that he wasn't up to the task of closing. Thus, the Red Sox returned Papelbon to the back end of the bullpen, with the caveat that he would get plenty of rest and not be used if he felt any pain or fatigue in the shoulder. Papelbon was held to 58 1/3 innings in 59 regular-season appearances, and wound up with a 1.85 ERA and 37 saves. He was used on back-to-back days only eight times, and pitched more than one inning just twice, never exceeding 1 2/3 innings in any outing. The result? "I feel strong and I have as much life on my fastball as I've had all year," said Papelbon, who has been routinely throwing 96-97 mph in the postseason.

Okajima had a 0.93 ERA in 43 1/3 innings before the All-Star break, but that workload seemed too much; he slumped to a 4.56 ERA in 25 2/3 innings after the break. In an effort to rejuvenate the veteran, the Red Sox did not use him for 12 days from September 15-26, allowing him to rest and go through a program designed to strengthen his pitching arm. Okajima returned to make two one-inning appearances in the final days of the regular season, and has been unscathed in the postseason. "Getting the rest helped," Okajima, who became the first Japanese-born pitcher to appear in a World Series game, said through a translator. "Mentally, I was able to rest up for the postseason and the World Series. I was able to refresh my mind."

So while everyone's supposed to be tired with no more than five games left in this season-and possibly as few as two-the Red Sox couldn't ask for their two top relievers to be any more fresh. "It's not just this time of year that you need to take care of your bullpen, it's the entire season," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I think it's actually more important what leads up to this time of year. You get yourself in situations where you have to lean on people so heavily that if there is nothing left then things go wrong."

That was never more evident when the Red Sox made their run to a title in 2004, becoming the first team in history to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the postseason to beat the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield sucked up 3 1/3 relief innings for the Red Sox in a 19-8 loss in Game Three, and that paid dividends in the final four games of the series, and Boston's subsequent sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series. "The Yankees beat us by like two touchdowns and it wasn't a very fun game," Francona said. "Wake went out there and kind of saved us. We stayed away from Timlin and (closer Keith) Foulke, then really leaned on them for the next two games. If we would have tried to keep it within one touchdown, it would have saved us some embarrassment that night but it wasn't the right thing to win. So if you take it over the whole season, we try to always make decisions not based on emotion but what is correct because you get into the seventh inning and you want Papelbon available every night. It's just not in our ballclub's best interest, though, to pitch him every night. Now we can go to Pap and he's got a lot left."

All the Red Sox have left to do to win their second World Series in four years is record two more victories; of the 50 teams who have taken a 2-0 lead in the World Series, 39 have gone on to win. However, it's worth keeping in mind that the Rockies put themselves in position to even the series Thursday when rookie left-hander Ubaldo Jimenez allowed only two runs in 4 2/3 innings despite walking five. Relievers Jeremy Affeldt, Matt Herges, Brian Fuentes and Manuel Corpas then finished up with a combined 3 1/3 scoreless innings, keeping Colorado in the game to its bitter end.

However, Pappajima's work in relief of Schilling was airtight-except for Holliday's single-making the work of the Rockies' hurlers for naught. "The thing that makes those guys so tough is their deception," Timlin said. "Hitters just can't pick up the ball against them and it's got to be even tougher for a team like the Rockies who haven't seen either guy since June (during a three-game interleague series). "Okajima hides the ball so well in his delivery and so does Paplebon, who not only hides it but then throws it 95-96 mph. Having those two guys is a heckuva combination." Pappajima also sent the Rockies to consecutive defeats for the first time since September 14-15, putting an end to the massive 21-1 roll they were on coming into the series.

Nevertheless, Rockies manager Clint Hurdle remains optimistic, though his team's first-ever World Series appearance is threatening to be a short one. "We've done a lot of things that people haven't expected us to do all year," he said. "All we need to do is win, what, four out of five? It all depends on how you look at it."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox,  The Who,  The Call-up,  Flamethrower

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