WASHINGTON — At the trade deadline, the Red Sox received considerable criticism for their relative inactivity, particularly with the pitching staff. Instead of adding a true late-innings complement, the team acquired left-on-left reliever Austin Davis and a struggling middle-innings contributor in righthander Hansel Robles.
Fast forward two months. Robles has emerged as a key late-innings contributor for the Sox. He recorded the final three outs of Saturday’s tension-filled 5-3 victory over the Nationals. In 27 outings since the deadline deal that sent minor league reliever Alex Scherff to the Twins, he has a 3.60 ERA with a 30.3 percent strikeout rate.
Since Sept. 1, Robles has made 14 straight scoreless appearances, with 15 strikeouts and four walks over 12⅔ innings. Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Robles, 31, has been able to use improved command of his high-90s fastball along with an effective slider and changeup to resemble the pitcher who excelled as an Angels closer in 2019 (2.48 ERA, 26.5 percent strikeout rate).
“His stuff has played,” said Cora. “I think the way he’s throwing the ball now is the way he threw the ball [then]. He’s been amazing.”
With Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino struggling and Garrett Whitlock and Josh Taylor on the injured list, Robles has become one of the team’s foremost late-innings options in its final push towards the postseason. He’s recorded four saves with the Sox, including on back-to-back nights in Washington.
For Robles, the precise contours of his role have been less important than the fact he’s emerged as a contributor with a team that is playing for something.
“It’s been awesome coming over here,” Robles said through a translator. “It doesn’t matter to me what inning I pitch in. I just want to make sure the inning I do get, I’m successful, I help the team win, and I help the team do whatever it’s supposed to do.”
Robles has used his slider more aggressively with the Sox, and he’s held opponents to a .167 average on the pitch — down from .412 with the Twins this year. His changeup (.193 average against with the Twins) has remained a weapon (.133 with the Sox).
“I’m not changing anything in the way I’m pitching, per se,” said Robles. “The biggest thing is the advance scouting from our coaching staff and [Cora] that helps me with situations in the game to have more success.
“The games are obviously extremely important,” he added. “It feels almost like an adrenaline-packed playoff scenario anyways, so when I do get into the playoffs, this is the way I’ll be pitching.”
Relief does not come easy
Ottavino went 58 consecutive outings to start the year without allowing a homer. The righthander has yielded five in his last 11 outings. All have come on his slider — the most homers he’s allowed on his signature pitch in any season of his career.
“There’s been some damage,” said Cora. “He thinks it’s staying in the same plane.”
The pitch is far from a lost cause. At times, Ottavino has still unleashed nasty sliders that break sharply both down and away from righties, resulting in plenty of swings and misses. But inconsistency has led to decreased reliability.
On the other hand, Ottavino’s four-seam fastball — a pitch he almost never employed prior to this year — has been dominant. Hitters entered Saturday with a .106 average against the mid-90s offering, the third-lowest mark against any four-seamer in baseball this year.
“That fastball is a good one,” said Cora. “I’m not saying we’re going to go out there and just throw fastballs. His slider has been a good one throughout the season. Keep working with it and let’s see what we can do.”
Whitlock, who on Friday threw his first bullpen session since suffering a strained right pectoral muscle on Sept. 19, is “50-50″ for activation on Sunday, according to Cora. The Sox don’t want to rush his return if it would mean risking a more severe injury. Taylor, who had been expected to join the Sox in Washington on Friday, instead remained in Boston while rehabbing his lower back strain. He still isn’t throwing, suggesting a low likelihood of a return anytime soon.
Nate Eovaldi and Nick Pivetta were available out of the bullpen on Saturday.
A homegrown ally?
In 2013, the Red Sox signed lefthander Jhonathan Diaz out of Venezuela to a $600,000 bonus. In seven years in the Sox system, he flashed promise and feel for his craft, but never advanced past A-ball. Last winter, he signed with the Angels as a minor-league free agent. He pitched his way through the upper levels of the minors this year to reach the big leagues. That’s been thrilling for the Sox, not only to see the success of one of their former minor leaguers, but also because his success has come at the expense of Seattle, one of their competitors for the wild card. Last week, Diaz earned his first big-league win with seven innings of one-run ball against the Mariners. He started against them again Saturday night. “I’m excited for him and a big cheerleader, obviously,” said Sox assistant GM Eddie Romero, who signed Diaz in 2013. . . . With the Sox trying to squeeze as much offense into their lineup as possible against a righthanded pitcher in a National League park, Kiké Hernández started at second base for the second straight day, with Alex Verdugo in left, Hunter Renfroe in center, and J.D. Martinez in right — the third time this year that the Sox have employed that alignment.