The end of games, at least, appears back on stable terrain. Craig Kimbrel made his fifth appearance of September on Thursday night in a perfect ninth inning of a 4-3 Red Sox’ win.
The Red Sox closer — who became the first Sox pitcher since Jonathan Papelbon in 2008 to record 40 saves in a year — has held opponents to an 0-for-15 line with eight strikeouts this month. His fastball is averaging 99 miles per hour this month, according to BrooksBaseball.net, his highest velocity of the year, with the top-of-the-zone command that makes it unhittable.
But while the Red Sox hoped that September would be a time of solutions in discovering the right prelude to Kimbrel, the team’s efforts to do so have been filled instead with false notes. Thursday represented the latest such instance, when Bobby Poyner and Joe Kelly allowed a pair of runs to the Blue Jays to turn a 3-1 advantage into a tie game.
The Red Sox still managed to win. Remarkably, they are 11-6 (.647) when they have blown a save (or saves) this year. But the falter on Thursday, particularly Kelly’s messy outing in which he allowed all four batters he faced to reach and threw five of 15 pitches for strikes, deepened the growing sense of uncertainty surrounding the Red Sox’ middle innings as October nears.
The Red Sox have 10 blown saves since the All-Star break, most in the American League. The team has converted just 50 percent of save opportunities in that time, also the worst in the AL. Of the five AL teams that are likely going to be playing in October, the Red Sox are getting the fewest strikeouts, giving up the most walks, and giving up both hits and homers.
So are there solutions in sight? Really, there’s no way of knowing until the lights go on next month. After all, there have been teams that flipped the proverbial switch in October, whether a 2003 Red Sox team whose bullpen was the stuff of regular-season heart attacks but that dominated in the playoffs, or a 2017 Astros team that had a 4.27 regular-season bullpen ERA but managed to invent playoff solutions en route to a World Series.
The Red Sox certainly can make a case that they have some pitchers with a chance to emerge as meaningful contributors in the relay to Kimbrel. At a time when the Sox are clearly offering pitchers late-innings opportunities to earn trust for October, here’s a look at the recent performances of the pitchers who are most likely to determine whether the Red Sox can find some late-innings stability next month:
MATT BARNES: Rewind. Through July 31, Barnes ranked among the best relievers in baseball. He ranked in the top 11 among big league relievers in opponents’ average (.165), slugging (.234), OPS (.509), and strikeout percentage (37.6). That’s four months of elite work. Then came a four-week span from Aug. 5 to Sept. 3 in which the righthander — who was dealing with a hip issue for some stretch of that time — got shelled (.283/.346/.587 with four homers allowed, albeit with a still-high strikeout rate of 34.6 percent). Was that struggle a product of the hip or Barnes returning to earth a bit after significantly outperforming his career track record? Maybe some of both, but the extreme contrast was so notably timed that the injury seems like the most likely culprit. Nothing moving forward is more significant for the Sox than how Barnes returns from his September downtime.
RYAN BRASIER: Brasier blew a lead against the Astros last week, the first time this year he’s faltered. Houston got to him when Yuli Gurriel ambushed a first-pitch fastball for a double and Tony Kemp somehow got his hands inside a well-located fastball, shooting it the other way down the line. But Brasier has still been about as reliable as anyone the Sox have, throwing strikes with two and sometimes three pitches, getting a number of groundballs, and generally offering the Sox a comfortable inning.
STEVEN WRIGHT: On one hand, he’s thrown five shutout innings out of the bullpen since coming off the DL. That said, his outings have been a bit wobbly, as hitters have a .263/.391/.421 line against him, with just two of 23 having struck out. Still, the idea of Wright as an unconventional, disruptive participant to the middle innings of the game continues to be tested by the Red Sox.
BRANDON WORKMAN: Red Sox manager Alex Cora frequently notes that Workman is the only member of his team with a ring, one that the righthander earned five years ago as a very different pitcher than he is now. With decreased velocity and increased feel for pitching borne of experience, Workman has featured a well-balanced three-pitch mix (fastball, cutter, curveball), a contrast to his fastball-heavy approach of five years ago. Interestingly, he’s shown his best velocity of the season in recent outings, with his 92.2 m.p.h. average fastball his best of the season. Meanwhile, he’s created more separation of each of his pitches by slowing down his curveball and cutter this month. Workman’s velocity remains below league average, with the result that his mistakes are sometimes pulverized (he’s allowed six homers in 37⅔ innings). But his confidence to throw strikes with any of three pitches gives the Red Sox some confidence in his ability to execute a game plan.
NATHAN EOVALDI: Eovaldi entered Tuesday’s game in the third inning and raced through three shutout innings in which he sat at 97-100 m.p.h. His stuff then dropped off in a fourth inning of work, when he was working with a 95-97 m.p.h. fastball. Some members of the Red Sox considered the initial innings of that outing a promising sign of what the righthander might do in shorter stints. But there is still an element of guesswork involved in the reliever potential for a pitcher who has just eight career appearances out of the bullpen and who hasn’t had to warm up on a reliever’s routine since returning from Tommy John surgery this season.
JOE KELLY: Yes, Kelly melted down on Thursday, just as he faltered badly in an appearance against the Astros over the weekend. Still, without warning, Kelly is capable of a month-long run of dominance. It’s hard to know which version of the righthander the Sox will get, but while he’ll likely have a short postseason leash, at some point, the Red Sox are likely to see what he does with it.
OTHERS: Heath Hembree undoubtedly will be asked to get big outs in the playoffs, but he hasn’t been given a high-leverage look with a lead in the seventh or eighth innings since mid-August. Though Tyler Thornburg pitched in back-to-back games against the Astros, those were his only two appearances in September. He hasn’t emerged with the consistency in his first year back from thoracic outlet surgery. Poyner has been very good against lefties and ineffective against righties; in the righthanded-dominant AL lineups, he’s not going to be a setup option. The three other potential lefty relievers — Drew Pomeranz, Robby Scott, and Brian Johnson — have all pitched in one game this month. None of those three appears to be in the mix for October.
SO WHAT DOES THAT MEAN:? The Red Sox’ best hopes of stabilizing their passage from their starters to Kimbrel rests on one pitcher who hasn’t thrown in 10 days (Barnes), two who spent the first half of the season in the minors (Brasier and Workman), one who just returned from two months on the DL (Wright), another who hasn’t worked in a true relief role in more than two years (Eovaldi), and finally, a pitcher who has proven healthy but wildly inconsistent throughout the year (Kelly). Those profiles don’t preclude solid bullpen contributions in October, but with the late-innings structure in flux with 15 games remaining, the Red Sox now will enter the playoffs hoping to find the right end-of-game answers rather than certain that they possess them.