BOSTON — From an impressive turnaround in their starting rotation to the continued heroics of MVP candidates David Ortiz and Mookie Betts, the Red Sox have a lot going for them at the moment.
But a stable bullpen is not one of them, and unfortunately, that’s no small problem.
Boston enters Tuesday with a 3.95 bullpen ERA, which ranks 20th in Major League Baseball. Red Sox relievers have allowed at least one run in eight of the team’s last 10 games, their most recent disaster coming in Matt Barnes’ collapse Sunday against the Kansas City Royals.
How concerning is a less-than-stellar relief unit? Two of the last three World Series winners ranked in the top five in bullpen ERA, and the one exception, the 2013 Red Sox, led all postseason teams with a 1.28 playoff ERA during its title run.
Craig Kimbrel has distinguished himself as a playoff-caliber closer of late, but outside of him, a motley crew of Brad Ziegler, Junichi Tazawa, Barnes, Robbie Ross Jr., Fernando Abad, Koji Uehara (currently injured) and Clay Buchholz (once a starter) has been unable to provide much consistency.
Simply put: The Red Sox lack the firepower to lock games down from the seventh inning on.
“I’d love to be able to sit here and say that (innings) seven, eight and nine are outlined, regardless of matchups,” manager John Farrell said before Tuesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays. “We don’t have that bullpen.”
Instead, Farrell has experimented with a number of different late-inning combinations, the latest of which is giving Buchholz the eighth inning. Farrell said Tuesday the 32-year-old converted starter will be Boston’s primary eighth-inning option going forward, with Ziegler occasionally filling the role against predominately left-handed hitting lineups.
“I want Clay to feel like that’s his place in this bullpen right now,” Farrell said. “… I want to feel comfortable in that spot, because we’re going to lean on him (against) lineups such as Tampa’s or New York’s, where you’ve got a number of right-left combinations in there. We need him to grow into that comfort level of being in that spot.”
Buchholz has been effective in short bursts this season, but watching him labor through a 29-pitch eighth inning Monday night didn’t inspire much confidence.
Ziegler has plenty of late-inning experience, having served as a closer with the Arizona Diamondbacks, so he could be a better option for the eighth-inning role if Buchholz scuffles. Uehara also is expected to return next week and could factor into the seventh or eighth innings.
Either way, it appears help won’t come from the outside; the ship on Jonathan Papelbon seemingly has sailed, and the Red Sox don’t have much in the way of relief help at Triple-A Pawtucket.
That means Farrell likely will continue to mix and match down the stretch, working with what he has to try to preserve leads — and Boston’s current lead in the American League wild card race.
Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images
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