Bullpen providing ballast for struggling Sox

"You! Come get some!"

At this point, the 2011 season feels like a reprisal of 2009 (an inability to sustain momentum). There's still plenty of time for it to turn into a 2010 (big surge, slow fade), or maybe a 2008 (graceless battle of attrition).

I think we can safely say it won't be another 2007. That's not to say the season could collapse into itself, but if it does, we can reserve 2011 for its own type of drudgery.

To me, when I think of 2007, my mind first turns to the bullpen. I liked the plan -- collect a bunch of high-octane arms with some big-league success and pair them with a stable back end of Matt Thornton and Bobby Jenks, then watch the strikeouts pile up. It worked for a month, and then it didn't.

That vision never came to fruition, which was an inherent risk everybody should've been prepared for. The Completely Ineffective Reliever Pageant that followed ... well, "Rocky" would've been played throughout the season had it come along four years earlier:

So I leaned back to hit him with all of my might
Took a swing -- but he caught me with a sucker-punch right!
Then a sucker-punch left and a sucker-punch right!
Then 22 consecutive sucker-punch rights!

We were battered by sucker-punch lefts (Andy Sisco, Boone Logan, Mike Myers) and sucker-punch rights (Nick Masset, Charlie Haeger, self-identified right-hander Ryan Bukvich). The Sox tried 16 relievers, and the most they got out of it was a number of good half-innings from Ehren Wassermann. A lot of careers died that year. Wassermann's died a year later.

This year's bullpen has been blessed by an inordinate amount of good fortune. It's possible that it could evaporate in due time, but at least fortune has smiled upon Don Cooper and Juan Nieves this season for a couple months. In 2007, she never gave them a second look.

Hector Santiago is the latest of the success stories, and therein lies the difference between the two seasons.

Back in 2007, the Sox turned to an under-the-radar reliever in Birmingham named Dewon Day. Nobody expected him to be any kind of savior, but he did strike out 48 batters in 25 innings as a Baron (not a typo), so I figured we'd have flashes of brilliance to sustain him through maddening inconsistency.

Nope. He gave up two runs on four hits in his first inning of work, setting him on a course to get hammered more often than not. My favorite performance of his was on July 12 against Baltimore, when he entered the ninth inning with the bases clear and a seven run lead. In the span of six pitches, he gave up four hits, and all the runners ended up crossing the plate. His ERA ballooned from 6.75 to 10.61, and he'd never get it out of double-digits again. That kind of unwatchable collapse lurked around ever corner with every reliever that year.

Now we have Santiago, who wasn't on anybody's major-league radar for 2011. He comes up from Birmingham, makes his debut on Wednesday, and pitches an uneventful 1-2-3 inning (OK).

Sure, that was against the Royals. But one day later, he's called upon to face the Minnesota Twins, who spent the first four innings shooting at Phil Humber's feet and yelling, "Dance!" He enters with runners on the corners, two outs, and future Hall of Famer Jim Thome at the plate. He gets Thome to tap out to short (good).

An eight-pitch inning followed (neat), backed by another 1-2-3 inning (really?), and another scoreless frame in which he had to pitch around a couple baserunners -- including his introduction to unnecessary intentional walks (phew).

This should have been enough, considering he'd thrown 3 1/3 scoreless innings and 40 pitches in his second straight day of work. But then he comes out and retires the Twins in order in the eighth (wow) on 10 pitches for good measure. That leaves just one inning of work for Brian Bruney. Getting fewer than four innings out of Humber in the opener of a four-game series could have had grave consequences, but Santiago saved the rest of the bullpen with a relaxing 4 1/3 innings.

This didn't happen in 2007, and it's not just Santiago. Before Santiago, we watched Jeff Gray overachieve to the point that his loss was bemoaned by some. Bruney picked up where Gray left off with effectively sloppy innings. Will Ohman reminds me of 2005 Luis Vizcaino - a guy who made such a terrible first impression (also against Cleveland) that it took months before people realized he really had been serving his purpose.

Sergio Santos has exceeded expectations in a high-leverage role, Jesse Crain is on track to reward the Sox for their sizable investment in him, and Matt Thornton and Chris Sale have persevered through their rocky starts. Phenoms, veterans, journeyman, prospects -- everybody is clicking, which isn't supposed to happen.

(Speaking of Crain, the scrubs have helped give him a breather. He's only thrown two innings this month.)

It's just a shame the offense isn't putting it to better use. In terms of customer satisfaction, these two units couldn't stand in starker contrast at this moment. Shouldn't that be impossible, based broadcast booth bromides? The next time Hawk Harrelson says, "Your offense is only as good as your bullpen," I'm writing my congressman.

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