It’s a contrast that’s impossible to ignore.
In 2018, the Red Sox were a steamroller, leads transforming with certainty into wins. On the way to 108 victories, the team went 97-1 when leading after eight innings, a mark of dominance that suggested an ability to knock other teams on their heels and then push them over a cliff.
It’s long been apparent that the 2019 Red Sox are distinct from their predecessors in a number of ways. But one of the most obvious and jarring has been the team’s inability to convert late leads into wins.
With a gut-punch of an 8-7 loss to the White Sox on Wednesday, the Red Sox boarded a flight for London with a 44-38 record and looking up in the wild card race, having fallen one game behind Cleveland for the second and last AL wild-card spot, the continuation of a season that has featured numerous missed opportunities at Fenway.
Of course, that deficit owes significantly to the team’s late-inning woes. Jose Abreu’s two-run, ninth-inning homer, which transformed a 7-6 Red Sox advantage into a one-run loss, left the team with a 33-4 record when within three outs of victory. The team’s 16 blown saves are the most in the American League.
“We don’t have all the same people here,” acknowledged pitching coach Dana LeVangie, an indirect reference to the absence of 2018 closer Craig Kimbrel. “[But] we’ve got to find a way to do it. We’ll continue to grind it out and do the exact same thing.”
Matt Barnes, charged with the blown save and loss on Wednesday, was vexed by his poor outing. He faced four batters and gave up three hits — concluding with Abreu’s game-winning launch on a mislocated fastball on the 10th pitch of an at-bat, a ball that screamed over the Monster fast enough to permit just four letters to enter his mind.
Yet that pitch was the only one that Barnes regretted, on a day when he threw his hardest fastball of the year (98.7 miles per hour to Abreu, who fouled it off) and when his curveball was diving. Barnes, who was pitching for the second straight day (he’d handled a scoreless seventh on Tuesday), insisted that fatigue was not an impediment on the mound.
“My stuff today was some of the best stuff I’ve had all season in terms of commanding the fastball for the majority of it, curveball had good bite,” said Barnes. “This one is hard for me to swallow because it’s not like I can come out here and say, ‘Well, I missed locations.’ ”
Yet clearly, in the bigger picture, something is amiss. Barnes hasn’t lost anything in terms of velocity (average four-seamer: 96.7 m.p.h.) or spin rate in June, but over the past six weeks, he’s gone from a late-innings weapon to a source of vulnerability.
Through his first 18 appearances of the season, he performed like one of the best relievers in the game, forging a 1.42 ERA with 35 strikeouts and just four walks in 19 innings. In his last 18, he has a 7.63 ERA with 26 strikeouts and 13 walks in 15⅓ innings; the loss of the strike zone is often an indicator of fatigue.
“Everybody is fatigued in the bullpen, obviously,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “He’s walking more people now and [Brandon Workman is], too, but it’s the nature of 162 games.”
On Wednesday, walks weren’t an issue for Barnes. But even with what appeared to be lively stuff, he couldn’t put away hitters, most notably Abreu. Of course, Abreu was getting his second look at Barnes in as many days, as the righthander had entered in the seventh inning of Tuesday’s win. On a day when the Sox were determined not to use Workman, they needed to rely on Barnes for a second straight game.
They’ve done so a lot this season. Barnes already has pitched 10 times on zero days of rest this season – one more time than he did so in all of 2018, and one shy of a career high. In those 10 appearances, he’s allowed 10 runs and 13 hits (three homers) in 8⅔ innings (10.38 ERA). Five of his six blown saves have occurred when he hasn’t had at least one day off.
“He was the guy we needed today. It just didn’t happen,” grimaced Cora. “Everyone has been used a lot. We’ve just got to get the job done.”
But how? At a time when mounting bullpen workloads appear to be weighing on several late-innings options like a boulder, is there a solution for the team?
Asked if he might reconsider his flexible approach to late-innings, high-leverage roles, Cora didn’t offer a yes or no answer. He cited the upcoming three off days surrounding the London trip — two before, one after — as an opportunity to reset and rest the bullpen.
Meanwhile, LeVangie noted that the addition of Steven Wright and expected return next week of Heath Hembree could help the team avoid burning out its best late-innings arms. The strong impression made by Josh Taylor could also impact overuse.
“We have the people here to get it done. We firmly believe it,” said LeVangie. “We’re going to ride it out and we’re going to end up winning more games than we lose and we’re going to have a successful year. We have the pieces to do it. We’ve just got to get everyone healthy and fit them into the right spots.”
It remains to be seen whether that’s true, but in the first year post-Kimbrel, the Red Sox are in a position where every bullpen stumble raises questions about whether the team is sabotaging its postseason chances. Even if the team believes it has the pieces of the late-innings puzzle, just over halfway through the season, they haven’t been able to make them fit.