"With that caveat," he added, "we're proud about what our bullpen's been able to do. We're deep and talented, and we have guys who have responded to pitching in pressure spots."
Four months ago, few anticipated that the Red Sox bullpen, considered by many a weakness, would emerge as one of baseball's strongest. Boston owns an American League-best 2.76 bullpen ERA in 251 innings pitched. Only two bullpens in baseball have pitched fewer innings, which bodes well for the Red Sox as July's dog days turn to August.
Manny Delcarmen is the man leading the setup corps through a mid-summer renaissance. By now, manager Terr Francona and Epstein have seen what All-Stars Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima can do at the end of games; the success of Delcarmen, a 25-year-old Boston native whose fastball runs in the mid to high-nineties, and the return of a healthy Mike Timlin, have improved Francona's -ptions even with recent injuries to Brendan Donnelly and Joel Pineiro.
Delcarmen is riding an 8 2/3-inning scoreless streak into increasingly high-leverage situations. During that period, he has allowed just six baserunners and struck out 12. Timlin has given the team 11 1/3 vintage innings of shutout ball since June 25, allowing six baserunners while inducing scores of groundouts.
Epstein likes the bullpen that he has.
"That said, you can always take a strength and make it even stronger," he said. "An aspect of a club doesn't have to be a liability for you to go out and try to improve it."
Uncertainty about the health of Curt Schilling and the alluring prospect of a truly dominant postseason 'pen could force Epstein's hand. Names rumored to be available include Kansas City's Octavio Dotel and Texas relievers Eric Gagne and Akinori Otsuka.
Epstein addresses offense: The Red Sox's greatest weakness during its 20-19 stretch since June 1 has been its offense. Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew appear to have recovered from early struggles, and their hefty paychecks also make upgrades at their positions unreasonable. Any move to improve the offense will more likely be complementary than comprehensive.
"One way for us to improve is to be patient," Epstein said. "You have a number of guys on this team who don't even have to return all the way to career norms to be really effective hitters.
"I think it bodes really well that we're able to have the best record in baseball and have a number of hitters whose best performance of 2007 is ahead of them," Epstein added. "At the same time, if there's a piece that can help us compliment what we already have, of course we'll be interested in it."
A day later: With Boston still buzzing about left-handed starter Kason Gabbard's complete-game shutout of the Royals on Monday night, Francona resisted assessing what could be a rotational logjam after Schilling's impending return from right-shoulder tendinitis.
"I think in this market, a game last night has a way of enshrining somebody in Cooperstown," Francona said. "Things happen. You try to stay ahead of things and try to have a plan A, B and C, but by the time Schill [returns], let alone by the time somebody makes the next start, half the time guys [might not be] available."
Donnelly update: Red Sox reliever Brendan Donnelly flew back to Boston on Tuesday night after having his arm examined in California. Dr. Lewis Yokum concurred with the original diagnosis of a strained right forearm and recommended Donnelly continue his strength and conditioning program as planned.
Buchholz report: A day after right-handed phenom Clay Buchholz made his first start at Triple-A, Francona said the reports from Pawtucket were "mixed."
"I think the report was better than the line score," he said.
Buchholz lasted just three innings, allowing three runs on five hits, one of them a towering home run to Ottawa's Randy Ruiz.
"Three innings is a real small sample size," Francona said. "I think there's ... a lot of hopeful optimism with this kid, that he's going to be a good pitcher. It's exciting to watch.
"But it was three innings of Triple-A baseball," he said. "Sounds like he made one mistake that went a long way."
On deck: The Red Sox will close out their season series with the Kansas City Royals against left-handed veteran Odalis Perez on Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. ET. Boston's Julian Tavarez will look to break a streak of four straight subpar outings, which have led to four losses and raised his ERA by nearly a run.