The Red Sox’ formula for winning has been consistent: Jump on an opponent and don’t relent. They are 60-10 when scoring first (compared with a 28-28 mark — still excellent — when falling into an initial hole), having spent most of the year taking early advantages and navigating them safely through nine innings.
Yet the past two games, which have yielded their first back-to-back losses of August, have offered a reminder that the ability to jump on starters and effectively decide the game in the early innings may be difficult to replicate in October. The Rays and Indians both played late-innings matchup games that signaled what awaits both with September roster expansion and against the loaded bullpens of October.
Particularly in an era when playoff teams view the move from starters to relievers as part of a planned attack rather than an option of last resort, postseason success seems more dependent than ever on the ability to beat bullpens. Five years ago, when the Red Sox won the World Series, starters accounted for 55 of the 76 postseason decisions (72 percent); last year, that number was down to 43 of 76 (57 percent).
As such, the usage of Cleveland’s bullpen by manager Terry Francona Monday seemed like something of a harbinger. Once Corey Kluber regained his footing after yielding three runs in the first two innings, he shut down the Sox through the rest of his 6⅓ innings, at which point Francona deployed matchups for particular segments of the Boston lineup, going to:
■ lefty Oliver Perez for lefties Andrew Benintendi and Mitch Moreland;
■ righty Adam Cimber for righties J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Ian Kinsler;
■ lefty Brad Hand for lefty Brock Holt (replaced by pinch hitter Steve Pearce), switch hitter Sandy Leon (replaced by Eduardo Nunez), and lefty Jackie Bradley Jr.;
■ and closer Cody Allen for the top of the order in the ninth.
Though their rally came up short, the Red Sox did manage to put together quality at-bats against all four Cleveland relievers over the final 2⅔ innings. The Sox plated one run while putting six runners on base (four hits, two walks), with just two of the 14 hitters who faced relievers striking out.
There were reminders of the significance of the Red Sox’ ability to put the ball in play. Pearce punched a Hand fastball over the head of first baseman Yonder Alonso for a double in the eighth, while Bogaerts hit a dribbler on an 0-and-2 curveball off the plate against Allen in the ninth, resulting in an infield single that scored a run and put the go-ahead run on first base.
Yet more broadly, the Red Sox have endured recent struggles against bullpens. In their last six games against the deep Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland staffs, they’ve scored eight runs in 28 innings against the bullpens — and five of those were during the six-inning “relief” appearance of Yonny Chirinos. Throw out the Chirinos and Jalen Beeks starter-out-of-the-bullpen performances (10 innings, 5 runs), and the Red Sox have scored three runs in their last 18 innings against relievers.
|Category||AL Rank in parentheses|
|Walk %||10.0% (2)|
|Category||AL Rank in parentheses|
|Walk %||9.9% (3)|
Has a potential vulnerability been exposed?
The answer is yes — but only insofar as every team in baseball seems vulnerable to the assembly line of incredible stuff featured in bullpens. The Sox have been in the upper tier of teams in terms of how well they’ve fared against bullpens, in no small part because they can put the ball in play even against pitchers with incredible swing-and-miss stuff.
The Sox have the lowest strikeout rate (20.6 percent) against bullpens in the American League and, unsurprisingly, thus feature a relatively high average (.256, second best in the AL) against relievers. That has allowed them to mount some noteworthy comebacks, perhaps most notably in an Aug. 5 win over the Yankees in which they scored three runs against New York closer Aroldis Chapman in the ninth.
Still, the depth of the bullpens featured by New York, Cleveland, and Oakland all offer reminders that the game will change in October, and that the requirements for success over 162 games are not the same as those in short series with the year hanging in the balance.