A sea of Red Sox relievers occupied the bullpen beyond the right-center field wall at Fenway Park during last week’s homestand. A few minutes prior, they had walked in unison to the place that would test their collective mettle for nine innings. Cramped knees, and stiff necks and legs, are never ideal.
“There’s a lot of bodies out there,” closer Brandon Workman said.
Seventeen, waiting for that phone to ring.
“This is definitely the most,” said bullpen catcher Mike Brenly, who’s in charge of getting all the arms ready. “It’s definitely been a challenge trying to maneuver around and get guys warm. It keeps it fun. You never know when you’re name is going to be called. Crazy busy, but fun.”
The Sox’ way of being creative in September revolves around their bullpen arms. Their original five-man rotation is virtually down to just Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello. The team was — and still is — building Nathan Eovaldi back up to be a starter, and both David Price and Chris Sale hit the injured list in August. Price returned, but soon after was shut down again.
That sent the Sox searching for their last hope: Arms and more arms.
Creating what looks like a public school at its maximum level of occupants.
“In college, we probably had seven or eight guys,” Travis Lakins said. “When I moved to the bullpen in pro ball, it was always seven or eight. It’s awesome to be down there with all those guys.”
Usually, Sox players have to bring out an extra set of chairs. Roughly six, according to Colten Brewer. Certainly, there’s seniority. Veterans Workman, Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier and Heath Hembree have permanent spots on the bench; Hembree, still on the IL, sits in the dugout for now to avoid the hassle. The chairs are usually for the rookies, who sit outside the bullpen dugout.
“You kind of have a small area,” Josh Smith said. “So, it’s like, I don’t want to cram in with everybody. So then I sat on one chair, ‘This one is too low. Let me try this other chair.’ ”
However, it’s not just the chairs that can cause some confusion. The bullpen itself can, too. With Fenway Park’s nostalgia comes an interesting, and not-so-ideal, work environment that surely isn’t built for 17. Most relievers warm on the mound closest to the field, but there have been multiple times where manager Alex Cora has had two people going at the same time.
And if there’s a lefty going on the mound closest to the bullpen bench?
“Zippppp,” explained Trevor Kelley, making the sound of the baseball zipping past. “You have to watch your lips.”
Kelley said you have to be alert for other reasons, too. The bullpens are back-to-back and, in the recent series against the Yankees, both teams accidentally airmailed a few into each other’s respective pens.
“It gets a little sketchy, but you have to roll with it,” Kelley said. “The first time I was out there, I couldn’t feel my arm. It felt like I was lobbing it in there and it would shoot right out.”
Kelley carries the rookie bookbag for the bullpen, which has an assortment of Red Bull, candy, sunflower seeds, anything to keep his vets happy. Lakins had it before Kelley, but now there are more mouths to feed.
“I went around a few days ago and asked everyone if there’s anything that they want in there,” Kelley said.
The crowded space isn’t that much of an adjustment for a couple of players. Darwinzon Hernandez said he was alongside as many as 15 relievers and 12 starters when he played in the Arizona Fall League back in 2018. Brasier said despite the amount of bodies in the bullpen, it still felt normal.
And for every bullpen guy who was a September call-up, the overcrowdedness is something that they make more light of than anything, because they are getting an opportunity to make an impression.
“I’m just trying to go out there and prove that I can compete at this level,” Ryan Weber said.
Said Lakins: “I’m really telling myself to be me. I can get worked up sometimes.”
Kelley felt this is a huge stepping stone.
“For me to have somewhat of a role here in September is huge for me,” he said. “Just getting my feet wet in the big leagues gives me a lot of confidence.”
The Sox will go with Rodriguez on Saturday, followed by Porcello on Sunday. It won’t be the bullpen game Sox fans have grown accustomed to, but if there’s any trouble, you can bet Cora — who said they aren’t punting any games away despite the standings — will summon a fresh arm.
“We’re very comfortable with all of them and know what they can do,” Cora said. “As everybody knows, we’re going to keep playing, but we’re realistic. As far as them and the future, as I said in spring training, it takes more than the guys that we take on the Opening Day roster.”
Hembree, who could throw a simulated game Saturday, would make it 18 bullpen arms. And he has already intimated something to the rookies.
“I got my seat,” Hembree said. “I already told them I’m going to get my seat back.”