Throughout the spring, Alex Cora maintained an air of playful mystery about how he planned to navigate the late innings. Three weeks into the season, however, the Red Sox manager believes such gamesmanship is no longer necessary, as he’s forged a clearer sense of every pitcher’s role.
“We see what’s going on, we see where we’re at, we see what we’re doing,” said Cora. “Now it’s time to start structuring the bullpen.”
Cora said that when the Sox have a lead in the seventh inning, he envisions lefthander Darwinzon Hernandez and then righthanders Adam Ottavino and Matt Barnes covering the final three innings.
“Right now, if we have the lead in the seventh, those are the guys you’re going to see,” said Cora.
The official unveiling of that trio went poorly in the Red Sox’ 7-3 loss to the Mariners on Thursday night. Ottavino inherited a 3-2 advantage in the eighth and promptly fumbled it, issuing two walks and committing an error when trying to force the lead runner at third on a sacrifice attempt. After a scoreless ninth by Barnes, Hernandez then allowed four runs on a pair of hits — a run-scoring double and three-run homer — wrapped around two walks.
That Hernandez has been put in such a high-leverage role is a reminder of the fact that the Red Sox are still, in some ways, trying to account for the absence of Ryan Brasier, who has been sidelined by a calf strain.
“Somebody has to step up,” said Cora. “We feel like we have capable guys, but people have to step up and do the job.”
Barnes has done just that. He now has a 0.90 ERA with 17 strikeouts and two walks in 10 innings.
While Cora left open the question of whether Barnes or Ottavino would close in spring training, Ottavino — acquired in a trade from the Yankees shortly before spring training — informed his manager that no matter what Cora decided, there would be no controversy.
“There was a lot of this closer competition talk,” said Ottavino (6.75 ERA, 9 strikeouts, 6 walks, and 2 blown saves in 6⅔ innings). “I didn’t really want to cause any waves or anything like that, so I figured, I could see that [closing] meant a lot to [Barnes], so I basically told Alex, it’s not vital for me. I’ll do the job, I would love to have it, but at the same time, I understand that I can do other roles and help this team, too, so whatever decision you make, I’m going to be comfortable with it.”
In theory, Ottavino and Hernandez strike out batters at elite rates, though Hernandez hasn’t been as overpowering in 2021 (20.0 percent strikeout rate) as he was in 2019-20 (37.4 percent). Despite his poor results on Thursday, however, Hernandez suggested he was undeterred.
“It feels great to know that [Cora] trusts me in those type of situations,” Hernandez said through translator Bryan Almonte. “I just have to go out there and prove him right.”
While Cora plans to use the frontline of Hernandez, Ottavino, and Barnes when holding a lead, he also envisions using a sort of “second line” of relievers to hold games in check when the Red Sox trail in competitive games. Hirokazu Sawamura (2.08 ERA, 7 strikeouts in 8⅔ innings), Phillips Valdez (2.00 ERA, 7 strikeouts in 9 innings), Austin Brice (4.76 ERA, 3 strikeouts in 5⅔ innings), and Josh Taylor (10.80 ERA, 7 strikeouts in 6⅔ innings) have handled most of the innings in those situations, with Taylor’s struggled to date representing cause for concern.
“If we’re gonna chase a win, J.T. has to do the job,” said Cora. “So far, he hasn’t done it.”
For now, Garrett Whitlock and Matt Andriese appear to have more loosely defined roles given their ability to pitch multiple innings and, in the case of Whitlock, the cautious approach employed by the team with a pitcher who has been a starter throughout his minor league career. Overall, Cora sees a commitment to structured roles as a key to maintaining the health and effectiveness of his relievers.
“It’s not about giving roles, but manage the game accordingly not only for tonight but also for the next day and the next series,” said Cora. “You abuse them this week and then in two weeks is when you see the workload taking over.”
Red Sox prospects Triston Casas and Jarren Duran are slated to play for Team USA in the Olympic qualifying event scheduled for next month in Florida.
Team USA, managed by Mike Scioscia, is the top-ranked team in the WBSC Baseball Americas Qualifier May 31 through June 5 at ballparks in the Palm Beaches and St. Lucie County.
Canada, Cuba, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela are also in the tournament.
The winner receives a berth in the Olympics. The second- and third-place finishers will advance to another qualifying tournament in June.
Casas, 21, was a first-round draft pick in 2018. Duran, 24, was a seventh-round pick that same year. Duran is with the Red Sox alternate site group in Worcester. Casas is attending minor league spring training in Fort Myers, Fla.
Red Sox minor league outfield and base-running coordinator Darren Fenster was selected as third base coach of Team USA.
“The potential of going to the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Fenster. “It’s something that’s very, very meaningful to me and I’m really excited about it.”
Thursday’s game represented a striking confluence of top pitching talent from Northeast college programs, with righthander Justin Dunn (a first-rounder out of Boston College in 2016) making the start for the Mariners, and Ottavino (2006 first-rounder from Northeastern) and Barnes (2011 first-rounder from UConn) in the Red Sox bullpen. “I always feel like we’re a little underrated up here in the Northeast, so I try to encourage as many guys as I can when they do get up here that I’m happy to see you and good luck,” said Ottavino. “It’s nice to connect with other guys [from the Northeast].” … Dunn’s first big league appearance at Fenway came exactly six years after his prior outing at Fenway, when he recorded a save for BC in a victory over Harvard in the Baseball Beanpot final … In an intrasquad game at the alternate site in Worcester, lefthander Kyle Hart struggled with his control, walking seven in two innings. First baseman Josh Ockimey smashed a 440-foot homer to right. Infielder Jonathan Araúz and outfielder Marcus Wilson also went deep.
Peter Abraham of the Globe staff contributed to this report.