Welcome to Desperation. Population: Red Sox.
The big standings sign on the Green Monster doesn’t lie. Giant letters and numbers will confront the Red Sox on Saturday at Fenway Park with the grim reality that even after their 9-1 thumping of the Orioles on Friday night, they are 17 games out of first place and 6½ games behind the Rays for the second wild-card berth. The dire nature of the predicament can’t be sugarcoated.
Manager Alex Cora understands the calendar — both its menace (38 games remaining, meaning that the Sox would have to make up roughly one game in the standings for every five contests) and its possibility (a cluster of five off-days over a 19-game span that started on Thursday).
“I know where we’re at,” said Cora. “It’s just a reality. There’s X amount of days to gain X amount games. It’s math.”
The Red Sox are trying to solve an equation for which their regular-season formula has been inadequate. And so, with just less than a quarter of the season remaining and the Red Sox pitching staff having forged a horrific 4.78 ERA (21st in the majors), Cora made clear his readiness to alter the variables at his disposal.
Last postseason, Cora employed his “rover” strategy, shifting members of his rotation into the bullpen between starts to have his best pitchers available at the highest-leverage moments of the most important games. The opportunity to ask for fewer innings from a given night’s starter — while adding a potential high-leverage arm to the bullpen equation in the form of a player typically used in the rotation — represented a strategy that paid off repeatedly in last year’s playoffs.
The Red Sox are now at a point where their hold on contention is at best tenuous, and so the impact of every game is of immense, playoff-like significance. And with that in mind, Cora suggested a readiness to use starters in the “rover” role again – but this time, not just in October, but during the forthcoming stretch of August regular-season games.
Earlier this week in Cleveland, Rick Porcello — Friday night’s starter — went to the bullpen on Wednesday in case he was needed. Nate Eovaldi, who had been scheduled to start on Wednesday, was instead conscripted for bullpen duty on both Tuesday and Wednesday.
Both Eovaldi and Porcello are on board with the idea of hybrid roles. Even after Porcello (11-9) picked up a win by logging six innings and allowing one run, he made clear his readiness to head to the Red Sox bullpen in the coming days.
“It’s do or die for us,” said Porcello. “As tough as the situation is, we’re not going to stop fighting, and if we need extra arms down there, I’m more than willing to do whatever I can to help us out. It’s been a terrible season on my part, contribution-wise. If I have an opportunity to pick up an inning here or there, whether it’s in a win or to be able to cover some innings and take some of the load off the relievers, I’ll do it.”
The ability to employ starters as relievers gives Cora more options. Even so, the fact that he is contemplating such a tactic represented an unsettling commentary on the state of the Red Sox season.
“At this point it makes you a little bit uncomfortable,” said Cora. “Cleveland was very aggressive [in how Cora managed]. We needed it. There’s no hiding.”
Even so, there is risk associated with the decision to take starters out of their normal routines. The increased workloads and schedule alterations — on top of a seven-month season in 2018 — introduce some potential physical pitfalls, with Cora acknowledging that he’ll have to lean heavily on his medical and training staffs to make sure that he isn’t jeopardizing the health of his pitchers through excessive and altered usage patterns.
“People talk about October and all that stuff that teams do. That’s October. That’s a lot different,” said Cora. “We’ve got to be smart.”
That said, the Sox also have arrived at a point where they must remain bold if they want their longshot playoff odds — 5.5 percent entering Friday, according to Fangraphs — to mean anything. These are, after all, desperate times, resulting in open-mindedness about the appropriate response.
“I’ll be tempted to whatever works,” said Cora. “If you have any ideas, how to turn this around and get going, I’ll use them.”
On Friday night, the Red Sox enjoyed what has been a novelty this year — a quality start. Porcello delivered six innings and kept the game under control, allowing the Sox to navigate the final three innings with Josh Taylor and Travis Lakins while preserving the higher-leverage bullpen options and rovers for another day. That formula, Cora said, bought the Red Sox “another day [where] we can be more aggressive” over the weekend.
As much as Cora acknowledges the yearlong inconsistency of the Red Sox, he also continues to cling to the idea that it’s not too late for his team to achieve a long-elusive run of consistency that sustain hopes of baseball in October. If the team does indeed defy the odds to get to the postseason, then the pitching path to get there promises to become awfully interesting, awfully unusual . . . and awfully desperate.
“For the most part, we haven’t been getting it done as a starting rotation,” said Porcello. “If this is what we have to do to win ballgames, that’s what we have to do.”