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If the Red Sox want to stay in first in the AL East, they’re going to need help in the bullpen

A heralded relief option when the Red Sox acquired him this winter, Adam Ottavino (center) has allowed a baserunner in all but five appearances this season.
A heralded relief option when the Red Sox acquired him this winter, Adam Ottavino (center) has allowed a baserunner in all but five appearances this season.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

As the ball hung in the air for what seemed an eternity, Matt Barnes anticipated the celebration. After the Red Sox closer struck out the final batter of the eighth and recorded two quick outs in the ninth, this Mike Trout pop-up seemed like the conclusion of a satisfying 5-4 victory.

“When it left his bat,” said Barnes, “I thought the game was over.”

But it wasn’t. The 225-foot fly ball fell between right fielder Marwin Gonzalez, second baseman Michael Chavis, and first baseman Bobby Dalbec for a single, and on the next pitch, the incomparable — unless comparable to Babe Ruth? — Shohei Ohtani jumped on a fastball on the inner half and snuck it inside the Pesky Pole for the game-winning homer.


“That’s the beauty of playing here,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora after the 6-5 Angels win. “Trout makes contact, the ball finds green, then Ohtani gets a fastball and wraps it around the Pesky Pole. It looks tough, it looks like [Barnes] struggled, but he actually pitched well.”

Of course, if all had gone according to script, Barnes never would have had to face Trout. The mix of misfortune and mislocation against the two Angels stars could have been avoided had the previous inning unfolded differently.

With the Sox ahead, 5-4, Cora summoned Adam Ottavino — holding righthanded hitters to 3-for-32 (.094) entering Sunday — for the eighth to face Angels cleanup hitter Anthony Rendon, a righty. Behind Rendon was lefty Jared Walsh, but four other righties at the bottom of the Halos’ order seemed easy pickings for the 35-year-old.

But after Ottavino struck out Rendon, he gave up a single to Walsh and walked righthander Taylor Ward. He nearly gave up the lead to José Iglesias, who hit a rocket to the gap in right-center, but Ottavino was bailed out by an excellent running catch from Gonzalez.


At that point, with a walk and almost an extra-base hit allowed to a righty, Cora decided he’d seen enough. He summoned Barnes with two outs in the eighth, looking for the righthander’s second save of more than three outs this year.

Matt Barnes entered Sunday's game against the Angels a perfect 9-for-9 in save chances.
Matt Barnes entered Sunday's game against the Angels a perfect 9-for-9 in save chances.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“I don’t think Adam was sharp today,” said Cora.

Such an assessment wasn’t isolated. There have been few days this year when Ottavino has looked like a lockdown setup option. Sunday marked the 17th time this year that the Sox have asked Ottavino to face at least three batters. He’s allowed at least one baserunner in 14 (82 percent) of those appearances.

Ottavino does an excellent job of avoiding hard contact, with no homers allowed in 75 plate appearances. The Sox continue to see him as a strong setup option.

“His stuff is really good,” said Cora. “We’re counting on him to get outs in the seventh and the eighth whenever we need him. We’re going to keep trusting him. He’s one of the best ones.”

But Ottavino’s longstanding control issues, struggles against lefties (.333/.455/444 against him), and shrinking strikeout rates against righties — 26.2 percent, down for the third straight year from his career-high of 39.4 percent in 2018 — mean that more often than not, Ottavino flirts with trouble, if not barreling headlong into it. After all, if Cora trusted Ottavino as “one of the best ones,” he probably wouldn’t have Barnes warming up behind him in the eighth inning.


The 35-year-old Adam Ottavino is in his first season with the Red Sox.
The 35-year-old Adam Ottavino is in his first season with the Red Sox. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Red Sox remain in an enviable spot — in first place in the AL East after more than a quarter of the season, with a 1½-game advantage over the Blue Jays heading into the series between the two teams in Dunedin, Fla., starting on Tuesday.

But their bullpen shortcomings have been apparent this month. The relievers have been charged with six losses in May (most in MLB) and five blown saves (tied for second most). At a time when teams rely on waves of relievers to dominate the final innings, the Red Sox lack anyone beyond Barnes to offer calm in the game’s most critical moments.

It wasn’t hard on Sunday for Barnes (1-1, 9 saves) to shrug off his first blown save of the year.

“In my job, I have to be perfect almost every single time. And when I’m not, it gets seen a little more in the public’s eye, which is totally fine. That’s what I signed up for,” said Barnes. “But I’m going to get back on the horse on Tuesday and this doesn’t change a thing.”

Barnes has pitched in a way to give such a claim credibility. But beyond him, the questions are growing rather than disappearing.

At a time when trade conversations are just starting to take place, the Red Sox likely will have to wait to see if a solution comes from within, whether greater reliability from Ottavino, or higher-leverage roles for Josh Taylor or Hirokazu Sawamura, or perhaps through a more traditional (and frequent) relief workload for Garrett Whitlock. Perhaps Ryan Brasier, who’s starting to throw off a mound while rehabbing his calf injury, will get healthy and claim the late-innings role the Sox envisioned for him entering the year.


But for now, the Red Sox look like a team that will be worth supplementing in mid-season through the trade market, and whose ability to stay in the race may depend on the ability to find a truly dominant complement to Barnes in the bullpen.

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.