The Red Sox bullpen was above average this season, that’s what the statistics say and there’s no denying hard facts, at least in sports.
But the perception has long been that the relievers are a weak part of what is an otherwise strong team. A few shaky games in the postseason have only reinforced that view.
Maybe that will change a bit after Game 2 of the American League Championship Series on Sunday night.
After David Price was lifted in the fifth inning, the Sox allowed only one other run and beat the Houston Astros, 7-5, to tie the series at a game apiece.
Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, moonlighting starter Rick Porcello, and Craig Kimbrel combined on 4⅓ solid innings. Kimbrel allowed the only run, that coming in the ninth inning. Sox relievers retired 13 of the 16 batters they faced.
Game 3 will be Tuesday at 5:09 p.m. Eastern time at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Nathan Eovaldi will face Dallas Keuchel.
“We needed everybody for this one,” said Barnes, who finished the fifth inning, stranding the two runners he inherited from Price. He then worked a quick sixth inning.
Brasier continued to take on a bigger role. The 31-year-old rookie got through the top of Houston’s order in the seventh.
“They did an outstanding job and they’ve done it throughout the postseason,” manager Alex Cora said. “We trust those guys.”
As he did in Game 1 of the Division Series against Yankees, Porcello helped fill the gap. This time it was by getting three outs in the eighth inning and pumping his fist as he walked off the mound.
“That was awesome. It fired me up,” Barnes said. “That was a big spot in the game.”
Kimbrel, again, was a concern. With two outs, he allowed a double by George Springer then threw a wild pitch before Jose Altuve singled in a run. Alex Bregman then ended the game with a fly ball that was caught on the warning track in left.
Kimbrel has allowed four runs on four hits over 3⅓ innings in three postseason games. His job security may soon be tenuous.
“This series, the bullpens are going to be talked about a lot,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “I think in playoff baseball there’s a lot of innings and a lot of outs that you’ve got to get. So buckle up.”
Mookie Betts, to the chants of “MVP” from the sellout crowd, was 2 for 4 with two doubles, two runs scored, and an RBI. After a quiet series of games, he made a big impact.
“We went out and did our thing today,” Betts said.
Cora reworked the lineup after a 7-2 loss in Game 1 and inserted Rafael Devers at third base, Ian Kinsler at second, and Christian Vazquez behind the plate.
Devers was 2 for 3 with a walk, two runs scored, and an RBI.
The Sox had only nine hits but ran the bases effectively and provided enough run support for Price and the pen. It was the first time in 11 postseason starts that Price’s team won the game, even if he did not get the victory.
“We won,” Price said. “That’s my first team win as a starter. So if it’s baby steps, it’s baby steps. I expect to win. But I’m very happy that we won.”
There were an unusually large number of empty seats when the game started. But those present mustered up an ovation when Price struck out Yuli Gurriel and Tyler White on six pitches to end the top of the first inning and leave two runners stranded.
The Sox then jumped on Houston starter Gerrit Cole, Betts lining a double off the wall in center and scoring on Andrew Benintendi’s single.
Benintendi scored on an opposite-field single by Devers.
The Astros tied the game in the second inning. Carlos Correa reached on an infield single when Xander Bogaerts was too slow to make a throw to first.
Martin Maldonado doubled down the line in left, sending Correa to third. With two outs, Springer broke his bat on a fastball and dropped a flare down the right field line. The exit velocity was 65.8 miles per hour but that was enough to drive in two runs.
There was nothing unlucky about Marwin Gonzalez’s two-run homer in the third inning. He crushed a 3-and-2 fastball from Price off the middle billboard above the left field wall.
The Sox gave Price the lead back in the bottom of the inning thanks to their ballpark.
Bogaerts singled and went to third when Steve Pearce doubled off the wall in left.
Gonzalez slammed into the metal scoreboard chasing the ball and was shaken up. But he stayed in the game.
Devers drew a four-pitch walk to load the bases. With two outs, Jackie Bradley Jr. went the other way with a fastball, the ball glancing off the Green Monster and taking a hop up onto the top of the padding that runs along the wall adjacent to the foul line.
Like a mouse evading a hungry cat, the ball skittered along before dropping down and bouncing again. Three runs scored by the time poor Gonzalez tracked the elusive sphere down.
“I’ve never seen it ride the top of that little edge like that before. It’s pretty unique,” Bradley said.
Price pitched a perfect fourth inning and got an out in the fifth before walking Bregman. With two outs, Price walked White on four pitches.
With Gonzalez up next, Cora turned the lead over to the bullpen.
“You just find a way. It’s October and that’s what you do,” Barnes said.
The Astros gifted the Sox a run in the seventh.
Betts drew a walk from Lance McCullers Jr., took second on a wild pitch, third on a passed ball, and then scored on a passed ball with two outs.
“I saw him smiling today, which is always good,” Cora said. “When Mookie’s smiling, good things are happening.”