The tale of the tape in every round has been unflattering to the Red Sox bullpen. Yet in each instance, it has quickly been rendered irrelevant.
The Red Sox bullpen has been dominant in the World Series, retiring the last 17 Dodgers batters it has faced (the last eight of Game 1 and all nine batters whom the relievers faced in Game 2). That represents a continuation of an October pattern rather than a departure.
Thus far, the Red Sox bullpen has locked down every lead with which it’s been entrusted. The group is 3-1 with a 6.18 ERA and 6-for-6 in save opportunities. Though Craig Kimbrel is the one who’s been credited for those half-dozen saves, the middle relievers have never faltered when navigating an advantage on the bridge to the closer.
Yet even those marks fail to capture what the Red Sox’ primary middle relievers have done in front of Kimbrel. With Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, and Chris Sale combining to offer six shutout innings of complementary support, the group of those three starters-turned-relievers along with Joe Kelly (1 earned run on 4 hits, no walks, and 7 strikeouts in 7 ⅓ innings), Matt Barnes (1 run on 2 hits in 7 ⅓ innings), Ryan Brasier (1 run in 7 ⅔ innings), and Heath Hembree (3 ⅔ scoreless innings) has a combined 0.84 ERA.
“There’s no way you can win 108 games if you don’t have a good bullpen. And there’s no way you can win the World Series if you don’t have a bullpen,” said pitching coach Dana LeVangie. “Those guys continue to step up and do what they’re supposed to do.”
That characterization seems at least slightly off the mark. Brasier is the one pitcher who has shown little variance from his late-season form to what he’s done in October. The other pitchers, however, have defied expectations.
The notion of using the starters as setup men, of course, represents a complete departure from form. But Porcello (Game 1 of the ALDS, Game 2 of the ALCS), Sale (Game 4 of the ALDS), and Eovaldi (Game 5 of the ALCS, Games 1 and 2 of the World Series) have all been lockdown options in front of Kimbrel.
Eovaldi has been particularly overwhelming in recent games, averaging 100 miles per hour on his four-seam fastball, the sort of velocity that has led to nothing but defensive swings against any of his secondary pitches. Eovaldi has looked utterly unfazed by the circumstance in any of his postseason appearances, the ultimate calming presence on the mound for the Red Sox.
“We were talking about it in the bullpen, me and Barnes. He’s such a nice guy but under that, he’s kind of an animal,” said Hembree. “He’s a great guy, but man, he fights. He’s a bulldog out there. He’s aggressive. He’s not afraid of any situation.”
Eovaldi’s resilience has been particularly noteworthy, as the righthander – who missed much of 2016 and all of 2017 while recovering from his second Tommy John surgery – pitched on back-to-back days on Tuesday and Wednesday for the first time in his big league career.
“Nate’s in before you ask him. He wants to pitch,” said LeVangie. “He knows where we’re at right now, he knows [it’s] something special we’re chasing. Nate wants to pitch and be a part of this championship team.”
Porcello and the other starters likewise are on board with the idea of being used by manager Alex Cora in any game.
“This is our third round of doing this,” said Porcello. “There’s not anything that’s unexpected or surprising at this point.”
Barnes, meanwhile, has returned to the form he showed from April through July. The rest and treatment he received in September for a hip injury that devastated his effectiveness in August has had the intended purpose.
Perhaps the most interesting bullpen contributor has been Kelly, a pitcher who was on the roster bubble at the start of the postseason. Late in the season, Kelly was struggling and looked adrift. His triple-digit velocity and ability to spin breaking balls both remained evident, but he was underusing his changeup (particularly against righties) and he seemed to lose his feel for his curveball and slider at times.
More to the point, he simply looked like a pitcher who, despite outrageous stuff, had lost his confidence. And so, in the penultimate week of the season, LeVangie and Cora pulled him aside in New York.
“Basically, went into the clubhouse after the game, said, ‘What’s going on? What are you feeling?’” said LeVangie. “From that point on, he was willing to buy in to make adjustments. This is where we’re at now.”
LeVangie also met with the catchers to underscore a point: Kelly had to throw the changeup more, against both righties and lefties. Hitters who know that a 100 mph fastball is coming hit a 100 mph fastball. Hitters who can’t recognize if a pitch is a 100 mph fastball or a darting 87 mph changeup with fade can’t hit either pitch. The team also had Kelly stop throwing his slider to focus on locking in his feel for his curveball. The results have been overpowering at times this postseason.
“He’s got some of the best stuff in the big leagues. It’s there. He’s had the stuff all year, but now he’s executing everything,” said Hembree. “When his stuff is clicking, he’s unhittable.”
The result is that a group that was viewed as the team’s weak link at the start of the postseason has instead emerged as a steadying force in October. In the first two games of the World Series in particular, the stuff being shown by members of the Red Sox bullpen has been overpowering.
“What those guys have been doing down in the bullpen, the results kind of speak for themselves,” said Porcello. “At this time of year, it’s not the talent and the arm strength that gets you by. It’s flat-out competing. Our guys have been doing a good job of that. We need to do that for two more wins.”