CINCINNATI – Each day, the shadow of a potentially tumultuous Red Sox offseason draws nearer. The lineup and roster are now filled largely with players whose future roles with the team are uncertain. Questions are far-reaching. The imminence of change is palpable.
Yet once in each turn of the rotation, a beacon flashes to illuminate the possibility of better days and years to come. On Tuesday, righthander Brayan Bello continued that ongoing pattern, again appearing both at ease and in command of a big league stage in a 5-3 victory over the Reds.
Bello (2-6, 4.75) limited the Reds to a single run in five innings of work, in the process lowering his ERA to 2.67 in his last six outings. His first two innings proved particularly noteworthy, combining glimpses of dominance and the ability to navigate a tightrope with no net.
Bello blitzed through a perfect first frame in just nine pitches (eight strikes) while notching a pair of strikeouts and getting three swings-and-misses. The bottom of the second proved more turbulent, as the righthander loaded the bases on a groundball single, a double, and a walk.
But with no margin for error, Bello did not shrink. He struck out Nick Senzel on a slider and Jose Barrero on a changeup. He and nine-hole hitter Austin Romine then wrestled to a full count before Bello induced an inning-ending groundout on a 96-mile-per-hour sinker.
“Fearless,” teammate J.D. Martinez said of Bello.
Bello’s ability to remain in control of a volatile situation spoke to his poise and development at the big league level this year. In particular, his willingness to employ his full arsenal – his slider and changeup for strikeouts, his sinker for a groundout – suggests a pitcher whose mix gives him a chance to be a Red Sox rotation anchor for a long time.
“[His mound presence is] a lot better than early in the season,” said manager Alex Cora. “Now he understands that he has to make pitches. He doesn’t get ahead of himself.”
Bello had some command lapses, both in issuing the walk to load the bases in the second and later in falling behind leftfielder T.J. Friedl in the bottom of the third. On a 2-0 pitch, Bello left a sinker over the plate, one that Friedl blasted into the rightfield seats – the first homer allowed by Bello in the big leagues – to tie the game, 1-1.
Yet Bello made sure that his mistakes remained isolated, and did not diverge from the game plan when he encountered trouble, working around eight hits and two walks by relying heavily (32 percent usage rate) on his slider – a pitch the Sox have challenged him to employ more frequently.
“I always try to lean on the changeup, but today it was the slider that was working for me,” Bello said through translator Carlos Villoria Benítez. “That’s one of the things that I’ve been working on between starts, to try to spin the ball more and get more break on that pitch. I think today was a good example of how good that pitch can be in the future for me.”
The Red Sox — buoyed by a visit to Great American Ballpark, the most homer-friendly environment in baseball this year – supported Bello with a power surge, with all three of their hits against Reds starter Nick Lodolo traveling more than 400 feet.
After Xander Bogaerts negotiated a two-out walk in the top of the third inning, Martinez crushed a first-pitch fastball to straightaway center field. In center Senzel was a moment late in his attempt at a circus catch, slamming into the wall and then crumpling to the warning track as the ball caromed past him.
Bogaerts cruised home and Martinez chugged into third with his first triple of the year to put the Sox ahead, 1-0. Yet as good as the three-bagger felt, Martinez viewed the moment as a missed opportunity, a denial by third-base coach Carlos Febles of what could have been his first career inside-the-parker.
“I was like, ‘This is it. This is my chance. If ever I’m going to get a chance, this is it.’ And Febles got scared,” Martinez laughed. “I said, ‘What are you doing, dude? You know I’ve got the closing speed at the end.’”
Martinez then made a more sober risk assessment of a 360-foot circumnavigation of the bases.
“No shot,” he conceded. “I was gassed by the time I touched third.”
By the time he batted again, however, Martinez had refilled the tank, and the Sox – thanks to a solo homer by Rob Refsnyder off Lodolo in the fourth that followed Friedl’s solo shot a half-inning earlier – had a 2-1 lead.
Rafael Devers pitched in with a ninth-inning, two-run homer 413 feet to center off of reliever Hunter Strickland. Devers’s 27th homer of the year gave the Sox a 5-1 advantage.
That additional margin proved necessary. After Ryan Brasier, Zack Kelly, and Matt Barnes delivered three perfect innings in relief of Bello, Matt Strahm threw just nine of 25 pitches for strikes in the ninth, getting charged with two runs on a single and three walks.
But John Schreiber – in a ballpark located two hours south of his alma mater, the University of Northwestern Ohio – entered to record the final two outs for his eighth save of the year, as the Red Sox improved to 72-75. Bello will next take the mound in the finale of a four-game series at Yankee Stadium.
“He’s getting better,” said Cora, “and I’m excited about his next one on Sunday.”