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Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Closer, but no cigar

April 12. 2013 12:44AM

BOSTON -- When the Red Sox executed the trade with the Pirates around Christmas time, and acquired Joel Hanrahan, they wasted little time in determining how the burly right-hander would fit into their bullpen.

They didn't wait until spring training. They didn't wait until opening day. They called Andrew Bailey and told him he'd be a setup man because Hanrahan was coming to Boston to be the closer. That's the specific role they brought him here to fill. That was the plan from the moment the deal was finalized.

And one bad night isn't going to change that. Nor should it.

"He's our closer," Manager John Farrell reiterated Thursday while Red Sox Nation grew concerned over Hanrahan's meltdown of a night earlier, when he yielded five runs in just two-thirds of an inning, and suffered his first blown save. Including two home runs, two walks and a wild pitch, it was every bit as ugly as its results would indicate.

But that doesn't mean it's time to panic, or even worry - particularly given the track record that made Hanrahan an appealing acquisition for the Sox to begin with, and even what he'd done prior to that point in this season. Because all of that suggests Wednesday was much more an aberration than a budding trend.

Consider that in his first three outings this year, he allowed just a hit and a walk in three innings. In his first three save opportunities, the only run he allowed was a solo home run surrendered with a three-run lead. In those appearances he had flirted with triple-digits on the radar gun and still managed to generally be pitch-efficient, needing only one more pitch to get through his two prior stints (32) than he did Wednesday night alone (31).

Then consider that since becoming the Pirates' closer in August 2010, Hanrahan never once allowed more than three earned runs in an appearance - despite making 70 of those in 2011, and 63 in 2012. Accordingly, he joined Braves stud Craig Kimbrel as one of two pitchers in baseball to accumulate 35 saves and a sub-3.00 earned run average in each of those two seasons. And last year, specifically, he notched 36 saves in 40 chances. That's 90 percent; by comparison, Jonathan Papelbon's success rate with the Sox was 88.3 percent.

In other words, he's proven he can pitch in the ninth inning. So one bad frame shouldn't cost him the opportunity to do so.

"I think Joel is well aware of what took place last night," Farrell said Thursday afternoon, saying before the game that because of Hanrahan's extended Wednesday outing he was planning to give him a day off. "If in fact we need to stay away from Joel (Thursday) just to give him some recovery, we feel confident we can build back to a guy that's had a lot of closing experience in the past."

Hanrahan does indeed know what took place, and he took responsibility. "I probably would have given the same reception, too," he said of being booed off the field. "To lose the game that way, that's not fun."

But the fact of the matter is that his failure almost never happened. With two outs, with two strikes, and with the Sox' lead still at one, a pair of borderline pitches that could've easily ended the game were both called balls. That put men aboard, it extended the inning, and it eventually led to his demise when Manny Machado found the Monster Seats with a three-run blast.

If there's anything to be concerned about with Hanrahan, it's his command. He walked 36 last season, including 10 in nine September innings, and if he had a better reputation as a strike-thrower he might've received the benefit of the doubt on those close calls.

But even if the umpires don't give him that benefit, Red Sox fans should. And they should give him time. Over his career, his ERA in March or April is a hefty 5.59 - but in no other month is it even within a run of that. That offers reason to believe he'll be better than he has been.

Just as the Sox have believed since December.

"He's obviously our closer," Farrell said. "I think, coming over and learning this league, understanding that there's power up and down the lineup, particularly the top half, and this club, they can drive the ball out of the ballpark. I think as Joel is making his way through the American League, particularly the American League East, location is key, particularly in those late-inning moments."

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RED SOX starters entered Thursday with an AL-leading 2.38 ERA - but the most impressive number for Boston's pitching staff might have been the major league-leading rate of 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

Bolstering that total was the five-game streak of double-digit strikeouts that the Sox staff also took into Thursday, a run that matched the longest in team history, and the longest run in AL history, too. Over the course of those five games, the current Sox had struck out 59 hitters; in Boston history, that ranked behind only the 1996 staff and its 61 punchouts over five tilts. (The 2001 staff registered 57 whiffs over its streak.)

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A NIGHT after Fenway Park's record-setting sellout streak officially ended, there was no new streak beginning Thursday. At time of the first pitch, the stadium was roughly half full. By the third inning, some of the seats had begun to fill in, but there were still large clumps visible in every section of the ballpark.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is

Red Sox/MLB Sox Beat