The Red Sox spent most of the season without Steven Wright, so they’ll be OK without him. Yet, given the tumultuous status of the Red Sox bullpen, Wright was a savior, posting 13⅔ innings of relief work and allowing just one earned run in September as his fellow relievers were falling apart.
It was always tricky as to when to use Wright. Manager Alex Cora tried him out toward the end of the regular season with runners on base and that didn’t go too well, but Wright was clearly a guy the manager could bring in late in a game for a clean inning. Given the contrast between his 77-mile-per-hour knuckleball and the 95-100 m.p.h. most Sox pitchers throw, the Red Sox sported a nice advantage with baseball’s only knuckleballer.
Wright was found to have inflammation and a loose body in his surgically repaired left knee and was taken off the Sox’ postseason roster Saturday. Wright was replaced on the roster by Heath Hembree, clearly a downgrade given how poorly Hembree has pitched.
Cora explained why he had left Hembree off the postseason roster in the first place.
“The way it went with Heater [Hembree] throughout the season with traffic, he was doing a good job throughout the season, but towards the end it didn’t work out,’’ Cora said. “Actually, he wasn’t keeping the ball in the ballpark, which is the No. 1 goal against these guys. You have to keep the ball in the ballpark. And he struggled with his slider, his offspeed pitches, and he paid the price.”
So the Red Sox activated a reliever who can’t keep the ball in the park against a team that hit it out of the park better than any team in major league history (267 home runs). So the trade-off doesn’t seem like a good one.
“We felt that [Hembree’s] fastball was a good one,” Cora said. “As you know, he lost his slider, the feel for it, the last few weeks, but it’s still 97 and 98 [m.p.h.]. I think with a team like that [Yankees], you have to attack them in different ways. He gives you another look.”
Hopefully, not toward the Monster.
Wright had the same restoration surgery that Dustin Pedroia had and it was thought Wright was turning the corner and not having to think about his knee.
I had a long conversation with Wright on Thursday and he said his knee felt fine and that it had held up well despite all of the relief pitching he had done in September. Then came word on Friday that Wright was in pain, and an MRI revealed he had a loose fragment in the left knee. What happened in 24 hours?
“He worked out [before Friday’s game] and he has to do all these exercises and activation,’’ Cora said. “He actually has to jump on this thing and that tests where he’s at as far as balance and everything. He was fine. And then after that he was doing something else – a medicine ball and started doing some exercises. That’s when he felt it.
“He went to the trainer’s room and told them he wasn’t feeling right. Had the MRI and we got the results. We had to make a decision. And now we have to move on.”
Said Wright, “I was doing my warm-ups like I normally do every day. All of a sudden I turned around and something just grabbed. I don’t know what it was. What we think is there are loose bodies in there, and that small movement moved the particle that’s floating around into a crevice. That’s where the pain started coming from.
“I didn’t think it was anything big until I couldn’t walk. There’s just a lot of questions that still need to be answered. There’s definitely something going on as far as loose bodies and there might be something else.”
Wright, said Thursday he was looking forward to a normal offseason and building up to be a starter again. That’s why the announcement was surprising. Wright had become an important piece of the bullpen and Cora and pitching coach Dana LeVangie had big plans on how to use him. Cora pointed out he was wanted to use him in the seventh inning of Game 1, where “it seemed like that game was perfect for him. He could have given us three outs, maybe six and maybe nine. You never know.”
At one point, the Red Sox experimented with Wright in a three-inning stint, and he pitched three shutout innings and felt OK afterward. So Wright’s usage could have been anything from a long relief stint following a hard thrower, such as Chris Sale, or a seventh-inning role before Matt Barnes.
The Sox will have to adjust. Cora said last season was a series of adjustments with the Houston bullpen. The Astros intended to use Chris Devenski, Ken Giles, and Will Harris as their late-inning relievers, but wound up using starters Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers. It led them to a World Series championship. So similar alterations must be made now for the Red Sox and how effective those alterations are will go far in determining how well the bullpen responds. After all, the Sox can’t keep using Craig Kimbrel for four outs. That will eventually backfire.
Wright was almost a secret weapon in the Sox bullpen because for as much as there are scouting reports on a knuckleballer, the pitch reacts differently every time hitters see it.
Wright rarely struggled with the knuckleball, so there weren’t many times he was completely off with it. Most often he was tough to pick up and pitched effectively.
“He’s very disappointed. I know he’s down,” Cora said.
The only other person more down than Wright is Cora.
Cora had a great trust for what Wright could bring to the late innings. And trust is huge between manager and reliever at this stage of the season.
Yes, this is a blow for the Red Sox, but nothing that can’t be cured by starters Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi, and/or Eduardo Rodriguez giving them a little help along the way.