Tomase: Red Sox playoff primer makes it clear path to World Series won't be easy

John Tomase
August 30, 2018 - 10:27 am
Red Sox celebrate walkoff win

Paul Rutherford/USA Today Sports

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We've known the Red Sox were headed for the postseason since they went 17-2 to open the season. We started thinking World Series or bust when they hit 40 games over .500 in July.

With October looming, their season is about to hit its critical second stage. They'll either be remembered as one of history's all-time teams, like the 114-win Yankees who won it all in 1998, or they'll go down as the authors of a brilliant regular season who fizzled when it mattered. The 116-win Mariners of 2001 own that one.

So which way will they go in the playoffs? We've got the questions that need answering.

1. First off, who'll be on the roster?

Pitchers (11): Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, Craig Kimbrel, Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, Ryan Brasier, Nathan Eovaldi, Tyler Thornburg

Infielders (7): Mitch Moreland, Ian Kinsler, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Eduardo Nunez, Brock Holt, Steve Pearce

Catchers (3): Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez, Blake Swihart

Outfielders (4): Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., J.D. Martinez

Toughest omissions (3): Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez, Drew Pomeranz

The roster seems pretty straightforward, as long as Devers recovers from a stubborn hamstring injury and Sale is ready to go after a pair of start-and-stops battling shoulder inflammation. A year ago it would've been impossible to imagine a postseason roster without Pomeranz, but based on his underwhelming results as a starter and reliever, it looks like he'll be entering free agency with a whimper.

One other complication is Vazquez, who must prove that he's sufficiently recovered from a broken thumb. Otherwise, the Red Sox could stick with two catchers and add a 12th pitcher with some length, like Johnson or Velazquez. They don't seem inclined to feature a pinch runner/base stealer, partly because that player doesn't exist in the system, though one could be acquired by Friday and still be eligible for the postseason.

2. Will Chris Sale be healthy?

Sale's career has followed a disturbing pattern since the day he arrived in Chicago as a 21-year-old in 2010. His output traditionally wilts like the last flowers of summer. Sale's only losing month is September (11-16), and it also features by far his worst ERA (3.78).

This year was supposed to be different, with the Red Sox applying the governor in spring training. Sale didn't really hit his stride until May, at which point he re-emerged as the most dominant pitcher in baseball.

Then came the mild shoulder inflammation -- pretty much out of nowhere -- that cost him all but five innings of August. The plan is to ramp him back up to full speed by late September, but until we see him throwing 100 mph bullets with that wipeout slider, we'll be left to wonder if he'll look like Cy Young in October or allow another four homers, like he did last year against the Astros.

3. Who pitches the eighth? Or seventh? Or sixth?

For once, the fears of fans and sportswriters were right on the money. As the Red Sox rampaged through the regular season, skeptics sounded a repetitive drumbeat: what about the bullpen?

Closer Craig Kimbrel is supposed to be a sure thing, but Tuesday's blown save against the Marlins (H, 2 BBs) just reaffirmed lingering fears that he's not right. If Kimbrel continues to struggle, the Red Sox have nowhere to turn, so just cross your fingers on that one, because he's the last line of defense.

The preceding innings are a jumble. The eighth has at times belonged to Kelly, Barnes, and Thornburg. The most reliable arm at the moment might be Brasier, and he's a year removed from pitching in a Japanese minor league. As colleague Rob Bradford noted, it's not a great sign when Brasier -- who returned to action on Wednesday after being sidelined by a foot injury -- is suddenly indispensable.

Kelly posted an ERA over 8.00 in June and July before rebounding this month. Barnes allowed one home run through July and has surrendered four in August, including two on Tuesday during an eighth-inning meltdown. Thornburg has returned from surgery to allow an OPS of over 1.000 on the road. There are questions everywhere.

Postseason success may hinge on Rodriguez and Eovaldi, starters who could transition to the pen and provide a jolt. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski did a lot to upgrade the roster prior to the deadline (Pearce, Kinsler, Eovaldi), but failing to address the bullpen could prove devastating.

"As far as the pitching, we need to get better," manager Alex Cora acknowledged. "We know that."

4. Will David Price's nightmare continue?

The $217 million left-hander needs to deliver. His only two playoff wins have come in relief, leaving him 0-8 in nine starts, including a five-run stinker at Cleveland in 2016.

There's reason for optimism, however, assuming Price recovers from the line drive that drilled his left wrist on Wednesday. Price dominated the Astros in a pair of scoreless relief outings last postseason. He also produced the most effective stretch of his Red Sox career after going back to the drawing board following a shellacking against the Yankees in early July.

Price remade himself into a craftier lefty who dropped his arm angle to hit both corners with off-speed pitches. The fastball that once routinely topped 95 mph now averages about 92, and Price has adjusted accordingly, keeping hitters off balance with an assortment of changeups, cutters, and curveballs.

"Just getting back to myself," Price said recently. "I definitely changed a lot of stuff up here the first two and a half years and to just be able to get back to the pitcher that Boston signed, it's about time."

5. Whom will they draw?

Their first-round opponent will either be the Yankees, Astros, or A's. New York would be an ideal matchup not only from a storyline perspective, but on the field, too, thanks to injuries to starter CC Sabathia (who just returned), slugger Aaron Judge, and closer Aroldis Chapman.

The Astros represent the worst-case scenario, since they're the defending champs, they're getting healthy, and they won't be intimidated by the stage. The same can be said of the Indians, who just split an entertaining series in Fenway, are two years removed from reaching extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series, and could loom in the ALCS.

The Red Sox own a 14-13 record against the aforementioned quartet of contenders, suggesting the talent gap between the clubs isn't as great as their respective winning percentages would indicate.

Check back around Halloween to see how this story ends.

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