Red Sox bullpen handles road work

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Now here's a novel thought from Jonathan Papelbon. The topic? The chain of Boston Red Sox relief that on Wednesday afternoon extended from Daniel Bard to Bobby Jenks to Papelbon.

"It's fun to be a part of,'' Papelbon said after an adventurous save in a 5-3 win over the Oakland Athletics. "And you know, maybe we'll be able to keep this chain together for a few years.''

Oh, really now? That's a fresh riff from the man who is eligible for free agency after the season and whose position as Sox closer could ultimately be claimed by Bard (most likely) or Jenks (less so).

"Maybe not,'' Papelbon said in his next breath, "but I think right now, we just got to keep feeding off each other. As long as we each go out there and do our job, it's going to be fine. Then on days like this, we're going to have to pick each other up. It's just that simple.''

This was an afternoon of heavy lifting for the Sox pen. Bard inherited a bases-loaded mess from Clay Buchholz with one out in the sixth and brought back memories, one fond, one not so much.

The feel-good moment came when Bard struck out Cliff Pennington on three pitches and induced Coco Crisp to pop to short, conjuring visions of the afternoon in Yankee Stadium last August when he entered in the seventh inning, the bases jammed with Bombers, and struck out Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher on six pitches.

Granted, the drama quotient isn't as pronounced when the names are Cliff and Coco and at least half of the fans in the Oakland Mausoleum are pulling for you rather than rooting for your body to be found bobbing in the East River.

Still, Red Sox manager Terry Francona, for one, was on the edge of his seat (even if he happened to be standing at the time).

"For me, that was it,'' Francona said afterward. "He came in and stopped it. We started it back up again, but that's what he's there for. It's a big weapon. That's what it is.''

The moment that fell short of greeting-card qualification: When Crisp, just before popping out, sliced a ball down the left-field line that came within a cornrow of landing in fair territory. But instead of kicking up chalk, the way David Murphy of the Rangers did against Bard with a two-run double on Opening Day, there was no white smoke for Coco.

"If that ball from Coco falls, it's a little different ballgame,'' said Bard, mindful of how quickly Boston's 4-1 lead could have evaporated. "I said no one was happier in the ballpark when that ball went foul than me, but Buck was there, too. He was probably happier.''

Bard admitted that, after the fact, he thought of the Murphy moment.

"Yeah, those plays happen in baseball,'' Bard said. "Half of them go your way, half of them don't. I didn't make a great pitch. It was out over the plate, and I was trying to go in. They've got to fall our way sometimes.''

More peril awaited the Sox even after Bard's escape act. Jenks, who replaced Bard to start the eighth, opened the inning by striking out the pesky Mark Ellis, who reached base five times in two games. But a walk and three ground-ball singles followed, resulting in a run that cut Boston's lead to 5-2 and left another bases-loaded situation that required sorting out.

"I felt good,'' Jenks said. "It's just frustrating, making pitches and getting ground balls that are finding holes. Extremely frustrating. What was important is that we came out with a win, but on a personal note, I thought I threw well -- a lot better than the results.''

Francona left Jenks in to face one more hitter, Daric Barton, whom Jenks got swinging on a slow curveball. Then it was on to Papelbon, who struck out David DeJesus on a diving splitter, the best kind.

Jenks appreciated the pick-me-up.

"It's really nice,'' said the tattooed one, whose congenial nature belies whatever foreboding might be conjured by his skin art. "Obviously, it's a long season, and not every inning is going to be a clean inning. When you have someone with that kind of stuff backing you up all the time, it's outstanding. It's a luxury.''

As promised earlier, however, more adventure awaited. Hideki Matsui opened the ninth with a bloop single. One out later, Papelbon planted a fastball between Ellis' numbers and the potential winning run was coming to the plate. Papelbon passed on self-immolation, however, inducing popups from pinch hitter Josh Willingham and Pennington to end it.

And then, the congratulatory conga line, the first time it has formed on the road this season after seven straight losses.

"It's grinding season,'' Papelbon said. "The last three or four outs are the hardest to get, I don't care who you're playing, it's not easy.

"So you keep moving forward, keep grinding it out. Do you know what grinding season is?''

Papelbon wasn't about to offer his interrogator any help. "Look it up,'' he said.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.