CLEVELAND — The first six saves the Red Sox recorded this season came from six different pitchers. That wasn’t a good thing.
Every time the phone rang, it could have been for anybody. The Sox came out of spring training believing they had the ingredients of a good bullpen but didn’t know how to blend them together. It showed in the results. The Sox had eight blown saves in their first 29 games and were in the lower third of the league in almost any statistic worth mentioning.
Compare that to how Alex Cora managed his bullpen on Saturday night against the Cleveland Guardians.
After rookie Josh Winckowski allowed two runs over 5⅓ innings, Cora turned to lefthander Jake Diekman for four outs. With two runners on and two outs in the seventh, righthander John Schreiber came into the game to face righthanded hitting Amed Rosario and struck him out on three pitches.
Matt Strahm handled the eighth inning, then Cora turned to newly minted closer Tanner Houck for the ninth. He needed seven pitches to record his sixth save in as many chances, all since June 10.
“I love structure. I love it,” Cora said after a 4-2 victory.
Like a lot of managers, Cora believes there’s a way to use the bullpen without a closer. He tried it in 2019 with Matt Barnes as an “ace reliever,” but burned him out. So structure it is.
Houck is the closer with Schreiber, Strahm, Diekman, Ryan Brasier and Austin Davis in higher leverage situations. Tyler Danish, Hansel Robles, and Hirokazu Sawamura are available for lower-leverage spots.
It has worked. The Sox have won six straight, 10 of 12, and 18 of 22 with their bullpen playing its role. At 41-31, they’re 10 games over .500 for the first time and have moved into second place in the American League East. The Sox have the third-best record in the league after starting 10-19.
“The bullpen is a big part of that,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts said. “AC knows who he wants, especially Schreiber when there’s traffic on the bases. He’s been great.
“Those guys got an opportunity and they ran with it. Now I feel like they know their roles and we get the ball to Tanner. Watching him on defense, you see how hard he is to hit.”
Most relievers will tell you it doesn’t matter when they pitch. They just want the ball. But having at least some idea what situation you’ll be used in makes it easier to prepare your body for the moment and your mind for what hitters you’ll be facing.
“It’s easier for us as coaches and easier for players, too, to have some expectation when they’ll pitch,” pitching coach Dave Bush said. “The hardest thing when there isn’t structure is guys spend the whole game not knowing when the phone rings if it’s going to be for them or not.
“Over a whole season, it can take its toll. There are times we have to do it that way. But it’s better when there’s peace of mind which part of the game you’ll pitch and which ones you won’t.”
That Diekman and Strahm are lefties who can get righthanded hitters out makes it easier to put the puzzle together.
Schreiber’s excellent work — he has allowed two earned runs on 11 hits over 22⅔ innings and struck out 27 — makes him an easy choice as the primary setup man.
“I don’t really need structure. I’ll take the ball any time,” Strahm said. “But I know it helps some guys.”
Bullpens are rarely static for very long. Once Chris Sale returns, the Sox could drop a starter into the bullpen. There also are pitchers in Triple A Worcester raising their hand.
Righthander Brayan Bello has a 1.60 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings in six starts for the WooSox. He has pitched 74 innings this season, only 21⅓ fewer than all last season. Using Bello in relief would be a way to control his innings while getting value, and the Sox are positioned to plug him in where he fits best when the time comes.
“Early in the year we weren’t doing the job. The hitters were out there for 15 minutes playing defense,” Strahm said. “But baseball is kind of cool like that. We adjusted, and we’re getting shutdown innings.
“Everyone is sharp, everyone is into it. It’s been a lot of fun.”