Red Sox still confident in Foulke

— The Red Sox are 35 days and 20 exhibitions into camp, yet they’re no closer this morning to answering the spring’s biggest question than they were on Feb. 18.

What can they expect from Keith Foulke in 2006?

An early indication will come this afternoon, when Foulke follows Curt Schilling in a Triple-A game at City of Palms Park.

Boston’s would-be closer — who received his third and final injection of an artificial joint lubricant in his left knee this week — will face hitters in a game for the first time this spring, a significant step that could lead to Foulke pitching to big leaguers as early as Saturday.

“Foulkie deserves my confidence because he’s done it, and he’s done it about as good as anybody in baseball,” manager Terry Francona said. “This isn’t last year. What he can do is so good, if he comes out and gives up a home run, I don’t think you bail on him.”

Foulke threw 21 pitches to Red Sox minor leaguers last Saturday, the first time he’d faced hitters since surgery cut short an injury-plagued 2005 in which he recorded 15 saves, blew four and posted a career-worst 5.91 ERA. Despite the late start and the two-week cycle on Synvisc, the lubricant injected directly into the 33-year-old’s knees, Francona said he considers the closer’s job Foulke’s “to excel in,” not lose, over the next 10 days.

The manager will accompany the team to Fort Lauderdale to play the Orioles, but bench coach Brad Mills and GM Theo Epstein will stay behind to monitor “how the ball’s coming out of (Foulke’s) hand and his command” in particular, Francona said.

“He doesn’t care where he’s pitching,” he added. “If he’s throwing the way he’s (been) throwing, I don’t know that it matters.”

Depending on Foulke’s progress this afternoon against Ottawa, Baltimore’s International League affiliate, the righty could return as soon as Saturday at home against Toronto. Regardless of the outing, Francona said he’s not concerned with the lateness of Foulke’s debut, in spite of his importance in a bullpen that sank to last in the AL in his absence last season.

“I don’t think he views it (as uncertainty), so you feel good about that,” Francona said. “I think he feels pretty good about himself.”

RELIEF FOR PAPELBON: Francona informed 25-year-old Jonathan Papelbon, who had a 5.50 ERA in five starts this spring, that he’ll open the season in the Red Sox bullpen.

“We explained everything and he gave you the answer we’re looking for — ‘I just want to win,’” Francona said. “I wanted to make sure he understood this is not a demotion. Last year, having minimal major league experience, we were very comfortable getting him into a game. We’ll be that way again.”

Papelbon was 3-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 18 innings out of the pen in 2005, a season that saw him make his big league debut after opening the year at Double-A Portland. Though Mike Timlin will retain the set-up role, Papelbon, who closed games at Mississippi State and was instrumental in Boston clinching its third straight playoff appearance, would be the likely replacement if Foulke falters.

The announcement, following the Bronson Arroyo trade to Cincinnati earlier this week, sets up a four-man rotation of Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Josh Beckett and Matt Clement to start the season. David Wells, rehabbing from knee surgery this spring, will likely make his first start April 12 against Toronto.

Clement, whose name had swirled in trade talks nearly as much as Arroyo’s over the winter, said he believed all along he’d open the season in Boston.

“They told me I was starting the first game in Baltimore (on April 7) since the day I walked into camp,” said Clement, who allowed six hits, three runs, struck out five and walked three in six innings of Minnesota’s 4-3 win Thursday at Hammond Stadium. “I’m ready to do a good job, and to me, it doesn’t matter if I’m first, fifth or third. I just want to go out there and have a chance to make 30-plus starts and do my job.”

ROSTER CUTS: The Red Sox cut their camp number to 37 on Thursday, optioning infielder Alejandro Machado to Triple-A Pawtucket and reassigning outfielder Ron Calloway and right-hander Jimmy Serrano to the minor league camp.

The 23-year-old Machado, who was acquired from Washington last spring and made his major league debut as a September call-up in 2005, had 10 hits and five RBIs in a team-high 38 at-bats this spring.

“That’s a pretty good player,” Francona said. “I just think he’s not going to make our club to start the year, so let’s have him go play a little bit. He’s at the stage where the more innings he plays, the better he’ll be.”

CAN’T BEAT THE PRICE: The Triple-A game against Ottawa at City of Palms Park will be open to the public and free of admission. Gates open at 11:30 a.m.

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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