Shortly before the Boston Red Sox’s bullpen handed Monday night’s game to the Cleveland Indians, Carson Smith’s long road back to the big leagues continued in Rhode Island.
The right-handed reliever’s latest stop in his recovery from Tommy John surgery is in Pawtucket, where he worked one inning against the Buffalo Bisons on Monday for the Triple-A PawSox. The results were encouraging, too: Smith had the best showing of his now three-week rehab, tossing a perfect inning while striking out two.
Smith’s rehab tour has produced mixed results, though. The scoreless frame knocked his ERA down to 7.71 in six appearances between Pawtucket and Double-A Portland, but there’s obviously going to be some rust to knock off for a pitcher who has pitched just three big league innings since the end of the 2015 season.
Yet Smith has been better over his last two appearances, tossing two scoreless frames with just one walk after issuing four free passes in his first four games. His velocity hasn’t yet returned to pre-injury levels, but as you can see, the wipe-out slider looks pretty, pretty good.
“He’s got plus life to his pitches. He throws Wiffle balls up there,” Pawtucket manager Kevin Boles said after the game, per MILB.com. “It’s pretty impressive.”
That’s music to the Red Sox’s collective ears, especially given Monday night’s meltdown.
As manager John Farrell explained following Boston’s walk-off loss to the Tribe, he’s trying to manage innings the best he can in hopes of not burning out relievers entering the September stretch run and the playoffs.
Farrell indicated that usual eighth-inning pitcher Addison Reed was unavailable (he threw 42 pitches in the weekend series against the New York Yankees), and that he preferred to give Brandon Workman the night off, too. Eventually, however, Workman entered the game and ultimately took the loss.
The Red Sox manager also acknowledged Barnes’ ugly home/road splits. The right-hander has been lights-out at home (1.95 ERA, 0.99 WHIP), but he’s been atrocious away from Fenway Park. Barnes committed the cardinal sin for a reliever Monday night, walking the leadoff man to start the eighth, and then gave up a single before being yanked. The game-tying run came around to score, ballooning Barnes’ road ERA and WHIP to 5.53 and 1.45, respectively.
If there’s a nit to be picked with Farrell, it’s his oftentimes frustrating reluctance to use closer Craig Kimbrel in anything but a non-traditional closer role. After a refreshing early-season trend of employing Kimbrel in the game’s highest-leverage situations — even if it was a non-save situation before the ninth — Farrell has reverted to the traditional closer usage of late. Kimbrel had appeared in the eighth inning five times by June 6; he’s done it just once since then.
Of course, maybe Farrell would have felt more comfortable going to Kimbrel in the eighth or ninth inningMonday night — had his closer not pitched in a non-save situation Sunday afternoon against the Yankees. Using Kimbrel with the Red Sox up 5-1 is a head-scratcher, Monday’s outcome notwithstanding.
But even if Kimbrel pitched the ninth Monday in a tie game, and the Red Sox ultimately won in extra innings, Farrell still would need someone to get the final three outs. But that’s a bridge Boston never reached because it couldn’t get out of the ninth…
… which brings us back to Smith. If and when he’s able to return, he’ll give the Red Sox another valuable arm in the back end of the bullpen, making life easier for everyone else. Stacking Joe Kelly, Smith, Reed and Kimbrel late in games — with Robby Scott ready to come in against left-handed hitters — would give Boston a potentially top-notch bullpen, assuming Farrell can push the right buttons.
The Sept. 1 roster expansion also will alleviate the sorts of concerns Farrell pointed to Monday night.
That doesn’t necessarily make Monday’s gut-punch loss any easier to stomach, but it should be a slight consolation that help — headlined by Smith — could soon be on the way.
Thumbnail photo via Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports Images