Closing Time: Red Sox bullpen shaky in loss to Orioles

September 28, 2013 - 6:28 pm

BALTIMORE -- The Red Sox had already accomplished what they set out to do by the first inning on Saturday night, when Oakland's loss ensured that Boston would emerge from the regular season in possession of the best record in the American League and, by extension, home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The Sox could not ask to enter October in a better position. That said, the game was not without consequence, even if the outcome -- a 6-5 Orioles victory -- was. The Sox still had a need to evaluate some of their potential bullpen contributors for middle relief roles as the postseason nears. The results on Saturday were less than promising. Matt Thornton, in his first appearance in a week, contributed a scoreless sixth inning and appeared poised to claim a win when the Sox rallied for a 5-4 lead in the top of the seventh. Junichi Tazawa had a dominant seventh, but asked to come back out for the eighth, he permitted a pair of hits before giving way to Franklin Morales. After Morales nearly gave up a homer to Nick Markakis (the O's outfielder's drive down the left field line drifted just foul), he came back to strike out the hitter, but then yielded a go-ahead, two-run double to Steve Pearce. Brandon Workman came on to stop the damage there, getting a strikeout and pop-up, but the vulnerability of Morales and Tazawa -- two pitchers who seemed likely to claim roles on the postseason roster -- added to the air of vulnerability that hovers over the Sox in the middle innings. WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX -- Will Middlebrooks went 0-for-4, and he's now 1-for-9 in the series after his two-homer game in Colorado on Wednesday. His OBP is now at .274, the lowest by a Red Sox hitter with at least 300 plate appearances in a season since Andre Dawson posted a .271 mark in 1994. WHAT SIMPLY WENT FOR THE RED SOX -- In his final outing of the regular season, before what could be a Game 1 start of the Division Series in Boston on Friday, Jon Lester looked like a pitcher without much at stake. The Orioles pieced together nine hits against him -- seven singles, a double and a solo homer by Brian Roberts -- en route to four runs, in an anticlimactic conclusion to a brilliant second half. Indeed, the outing marked one of just two outings since the All-Star break (in 13 starts) in which Lester had yielded more than three runs. He wrapped up the year with a 3.75 ERA, but a 2.57 mark after the All-Star break. While the final outing fell a bit flat, Lester nonetheless reached a milestone during it. With five innings, he pushed his innings total for the year to 213 1/3, a new career-high. Despite the workload, and his Saturday night line notwithstanding, the left-hander still appears to have plenty in the tank, as evidenced by the fact that Lester still managed 11 swings and misses among his 97 pitches as he prepares for an outing of greater consequence next weekend. WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX -- Daniel Nava added to an already mind-blowing year by going 4-for-4 (all singles), boosting his average from .297 to .303 (8th in the AL) and elevating his OBP to a startling .385 -- fifth in the American League, behind only Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Joe Mauer and David Ortiz. His slugging percentage, despite relatively limited power (12 homers), is now at .445 -- sixth among AL outfielders, behind only Trout, Jose Bautista, Adam Jones, Torii Hunter and teammate Shane Victorino. In other words, Nava's numbers place him among a group of players that consisted almost entirely (save for Victorino) of All-Stars. -- Matt Thornton, competing for one of the Sox' final postseason bullpen spots, pitched a perfect inning in his first appearance in a week, striking out a left-handed hitter (called strike) with an infield pop-up and groundout also mixed in. His fastball touched 95 mph. -- David Ross went 2-for-4 with a double while driving in a pair of runs, his second multi-RBI game of the year and his first since April 26. After he looked rusty in his initial games back from a concussion, Ross has shown considerable improvement over his last 10 games (dating to Aug. 31), hitting .321/.406/.393 in that time. The Sox are 8-3 in his starts since he came off the DL. -- On a night when he set a career-high in games played with 160, Dustin Pedroia went 3-for-5, collecting a trio of hits for the second straight game. It is the third time in 2013 and 13th in his career that the second baseman has had three or more hits in at least two straight games. He improved his average from .299 to .301.