ANAHEIM, Calif. — It’s a good thing the Red Sox have been able to build a decent lead in the American League East (4½ games over the Orioles and Rays) because they dropped the first series of this 10-game West Coast swing to the Angels with a 3-0 loss and some areas of concern are cropping up.
The good news is the Sox have performed well in the most essential area for success — starting pitching — but are starting to fall on the back end of the pitching staff — the bullpen.
John Lackey had another solid start Sunday night, allowing two runs over seven innings, but he took the loss as the Sox were unable to solve Jered Weaver over the first 6⅔ innings, and couldn’t muster anything against the Angels’ bullpen.
Lackey was returning to his roots, as he pitched the first eight seasons of his career in Anaheim. He had been 4-1 against the Angels since joining the Sox in 2010 and pitched well enough for another victory had it not been for his old buddy Weaver.
Despite the loss, the Sox still will arrive in Seattle as winners of five of their last seven. The West Coast can spit out East Coast teams and the Sox don’t want to be the latest victim so close to the All-Star break. The goal was to maintain a decent lead heading into the break.
Obviously, the Sox have issues after the meltdown Saturday night, when the bullpen squandered a 7-3 lead and lost, 9-7, on Josh Hamilton’s walkoff homer in the 11th. And Sunday night, it was Weaver and three relievers who held the Sox in check.
It’s obvious some of the Sox’ relievers are starting to get taxed. Junichi Tazawa, who has made 41 appearances, allowed the insurance run in the eighth when Erick Aybar tripled and scored on Mark Trumbo’s sacrifice fly. It would only stand to reason that the bullpen would suffer a letdown after being so good for so long.
Even Koji Uehara gave up some big hits Saturday, and the Sox seem to be in daily replenish mode, calling up Alfredo Aceves from Pawtucket on Sunday to fortify the bullpen after Andrew Miller (foot) went on the disabled list.
The Sox have their scouts out looking for bullpen help. The White Sox are always a good source for that. Jesse Crain would have been perfect, but he’s now injured. Lefty Matt Thornton could be a possible fit as Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves has familiarity with him from his Chicago days.
Even lefty Scott Downs would be suitable if the Angels are willing to deal. Miami’s Steve Cishek, a Falmouth, Mass., native, is being scouted. The Cubs are making Kevin Gregg available, and the Sox investigated him, as well. There are many possibilities, but the Sox want to be careful about not giving up too many prospects for a relief rental, so they’d love to solve this issue internally.
Bullpens need constant makeovers. It’s rare a team ends the season with the same bullpen with which it started. The key is to replenish and keep the slumps to a minimum.
Alex Wilson has provided depth. The Sox are thankful to have Aceves in reserve, and now sinkerballer Jose De La Torre may be counted on to provide quality innings.
With Miller down, Craig Breslow is the only lefthander in the pen. Breslow was tagged with the loss Saturday. At one point, the Sox had three lefties, but it doesn’t appear likely that Miller or Franklin Morales, who has yet to start a rehab assignment, will be back any time soon.
The Sox recently promoted 40-man roster lefty Drake Britton to Pawtucket, and he could become an option soon. There has been talk of Brandon Workman (who has struck out 108 in 101 innings as a starter in Double A and Triple A) possibly switching to the bullpen.
Filling a bullpen with youngsters can be problematic because of the pressure of pitching key innings in a pennant race.
This is why the Sox have been patting Andrew Bailey on the back, and he’s been responding recently. As manager John Farrell has said, they need Bailey to be effective in some role, whether it’s as a setup man or closer.
For now, the Sox will take their starters’ success and hope they can continue to pitch deep the way Lackey did Sunday.
“It’s the best start I’ve gotten off to, for sure,” said Lackey, who has the best ERA (2.80) through his first 15 starts since 2007, when he was 2.53 with the Angels. Lackey has posted nine quality starts in his last 10 for a 2.30 ERA and has walked only five over his last seven starts. In 13 of his 15 starts he’s allowed three or fewer runs.
Add a trending upward Jon Lester, an impressive Felix Doubront, and a steady Ryan Dempster, and the Sox have had a solid rotation. Add a healthy Clay Buchholz and it’s pretty special.
But much like the Tigers, if the bullpen can’t stabilize itself, it will be troublesome. The Sox are 17 for 31 in save chances, which isn’t very good, and it can’t remain that bad for this team to win in October.
Yet, the Sox have some time and wiggle room to straighten it out. General manager Ben Cherington said the team that makes the best in-season moves could be the team that emerges.
The Sox may need to strike sooner rather than later.