CLEVELAND -- Do the Boston Red Sox have enough bullpen talent to compete for the American League East crown?

This question came to mind after yesterday's demoralizing 11-7 loss to the Cleveland Indians. By a twist of fate, the spotlight fell on left-hander Vaughn Eshelman, who stepped out of a car and into a relief appearance he was not expecting. He and his bullpen mates allowed 10 hits and seven runs in 2 2/3 innings.

You have to wonder about some of the bullpen moves the Sox are making, and the wisdom of the people who are making them.

"We go with what we have," suggested manager Jimy Williams, who saw his team blow a 5-0 lead. The Indians scratched out four runs off starter John Wasdin and then ran roughshod over the Sox bullpen.

"If we feel we have somebody better, then we'll make changes," said Williams. "Until we do, we'll go with these guys. I know I put Eshelman into the game in a tough spot. But you use the people you have because you have confidence in them. I felt good about bringing him in there. But he'd been traveling by car to get here and hadn't had long to warm up. So I guess it's my fault in putting him in there."

It was his fault. A manager is responsible to make sure there is proper communication with his players. Eshelman had driven 2 1/2 hours to Cleveland not knowing he was on the active roster until arriving at Jacobs Field in the seventh inning. With the score tied, 5-5, and runners on first and second, he entered the game and gave up a single to David Justice, allowed a run on a wild pitch, intentionally walked Manny Ramirez, then gave up another run by walking pinch hitter Julio Franco. He didn't get the loss. But clearly, he shouldn't have been on the mound.

The bullpen breakdown goes far beyond what happened yesterday. The only thing certain these days is closer Heathcliff Slocumb. Before getting to Slocumb there's Chris Hammond, Rick Trlicek, Jim Corsi, Pat Mahomes, and Butch Henry, who needs two days off after every appearance because of an elbow problem and a stiff shoulder.

In other words, it is either feast or famine for the Red Sox starters who have a 2.82 earned run average in the last 11 games. The failure of the middle relievers is the cause of the bullpen's malaise. The pen has just six saves (three by Slocumb) in 10 opportunities.

The Sox want desperately to set up a bullpen rotation -- long, middle, and short relief. But based on the daily confusion, it is hit or miss. And yesterday, the bullpen missed the plate a lot.

"We had a hard time getting ahead of the hitters," said catcher Bill Haselman. "The Indians were able to sit back and look for what they wanted. It was tough on Vaughn because from the moment he got in, it was rush, rush, rush. Basically, he just had a hard time getting the ball over the plate."

The Red Sox have told us all spring they have a plan for their pitching staff. The starters are set: Steve Avery, Tim Wakefiled, Aaron Sele, Tom Gordon, and John Wasdin. But Wednesday, Wakefield was placed on the disabled list with a swollen elbow. That pulled Hammond from the bullpen to become a starter. Fine. The problem lies in why Eshelman was called up to fill the void?

Since being sent down to Pawtucket April 11, Eshelman has been working as a starter. The Sox' more experienced relievers in the minors -- Rich Garces, Mark Brandenburg, and Kerry Lacy -- are all hurt. Right-hander Jeff Suppan is being groomed for possible duty as a middle reliever. By process of elimination that put Eshelman on the mound yesterday.

"I didn't feel badly," said Eshelman. "I'd pitched two days ago and this was my bullpen day. I'd taken a couple of tosses to get loose. Then I had to face David Justice. Maybe if I get ahead of him, I get them out. If you do it, you're a hero."

He hopes Wednesday's performance will be forgotten.

"I don't know what the plans are for me," said Eshelman. "But I do know that if someone has to be called up to the big leagues out of Triple A, I want it to be me."

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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