On Saturday morning, an AL scout took stock of the Red Sox bullpen.
“A real mess,” he texted.
Hours later, the group gave up four runs in the eighth inning to turn a 4-2 advantage into a 5-3 loss to the Yankees. One day later, the Red Sox bullpen again held an eighth-inning advantage. And again, it gave up four runs to the Yankees as a 3-2 lead transformed into a 6-3 loss.
The scout circled back after witnessing the second meltdown.
“This,” he texted, “is nuts.”
The two crucial defeats not only left the Red Sox trailing the Yankees for the top wild-card spot — and just ahead of the Blue Jays for the second and final spot — but also put a spotlight on a late-innings structure (or lack thereof) that has created a nightly exercise in chaos in the Red Sox bullpen.
Relievers typically know their number will be called long before a phone rings. At certain points in a game, you might see one or two pitchers — or at most, three — ascend from the bullpen bench without any official word. The stage of the game as well as the hitters usually make clear who needs to start stretching in anticipation of possible entry into a game.
But that sort of anticipation relies on structure. The Red Sox bullpen currently has almost none.
Closer? Long man? Setup role? Middle innings? Those terms no longer serve an identifying function for Red Sox relievers in a bullpen that has become position-less.
Red Sox relievers have combined for six saves this month, with five pitchers — Adam Ottavino, Garrett Richards, Garrett Whitlock, Hansel Robles, and Josh Taylor — each getting credit for at least one. (Darwinzon Hernandez recently entered in the middle of the ninth inning to record the final outs of a 6-3 win, but wasn’t credited with a save because he recorded fewer than three outs.) All of those pitchers also have seen action in the sixth inning or earlier at in September.
Against that backdrop, the dynamic of games has changed. At any given moment, a snapshot of the Red Sox bullpen in the middle and late innings looks like a yoga studio, with a half-dozen pitchers simultaneously stretching. When bullpen coach Kevin Walker answers an incoming call from the dugout, everyone’s head turns with curiosity.
“It’s been about a month that all these guys are committed to throwing and helping the team out whenever it is. I think everybody’s all on the same page about, we’re trying to reach a goal of getting to the postseason and whatever it takes, everybody’s up for the call,” said Walker. “Structure is great, but as of right now, it’s all hands on deck and everybody’s out there and they’re ready to pitch whenever they’re called upon.”
The development represents the crumpling of a blueprint that had worked very well and very consistently through the first half of the season.
Matt Barnes emerged as an All-Star closer, striking out roughly half of the hitters he faced. Ottavino performed as a reliably effective, high-leverage setup reliever. Taylor had a run of 26 straight scoreless appearances, the longest in franchise history by a lefty. Every few days, Whitlock overpowered opponents for a couple of innings at a time.
But right now, Barnes — who was out for 2½ weeks this month while on the COVID-19 IL and a subsequent rehab assignment — has allowed 11 runs in nine innings over 14 appearances since the start of August. He’s been removed from the high-leverage equation, with his reassignment to lower-leverage situations representing the first step toward an amorphous bullpen.
His most recent outing was his most encouraging in some time, with the righthander getting swings and misses on his fastball and curveball in a scoreless inning against the Yankees on Friday.
“I felt like I was out there with stuff that I could command, that played, that was powerful,” said Barnes. “I’d love to see it a bunch more. I definitely feel much better now.”
Whitlock — who has a 4.42 ERA in his last 13 appearances since Aug. 10, with a 4.82 mark in 9⅔ innings in September — is on the injured list with a pectoral strain. Taylor just joined him with a lower back strain.
“It’s a tough one,” said manager Alex Cora.
Ottavino, who hadn’t allowed a homer through his first 58 appearances this year, has now been taken deep in four of his last eight outings, most recently when Giancarlo Stanton launched a slider into geosynchronous orbit Sunday.
The struggles of Ottavino and Barnes and the absence of Whitlock and Taylor have led to change on a game-to-game and inning-to-inning basis. The Sox bullpen has tried to adapt.
“You try to play along [with Cora’s decisions]. Sometimes, you don’t know [who will be called], sometimes you can kind of piece together, but it’s definitely a little different now than it was in May,” said Barnes. “A.C.’s managing it like it’s the playoffs right now. Every game we’ve got to do whatever we can to win today and figure out tomorrow as we go.”
The blown games against the Yankees highlighted the short-handedness of the Sox bullpen, with Hernandez giving up a grand slam to Stanton on Saturday in a situation where Taylor would have been more likely to enter, and the eighth inning unraveling Sunday in a spot where Whitlock likely would have been asked to clean up.
Yet there have been other instances this month — particularly in a series win in Seattle against a wild-card contender — where the bullpen has played an enormous part in the Red Sox’ continued contention. Should the Red Sox advance to the postseason, a case can be made that the shifting roles have prepared the bullpen for the urgency and unpredictability that greets every out in October.
“Right now everybody’s kind of ready for everything,” said Ottavino. “I know it can be frustrating as a fan because you’re going to disagree with whatever doesn’t work … [But] it’s only going to help everybody’s growth.
“Everybody’s getting chances. Everybody’s getting in there. It’s training everybody to be ready for [the playoffs].”
That is, of course, if it doesn’t become an impediment to getting there.