Hackett: Best way for Red Sox to spell relief is with starters

Jim Hackett
September 20, 2018 - 3:30 pm

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

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“Rolaids spells relief.” Remember that ad? Back in August I purchased a few packs of Rolaids in anticipation of what the Red Sox relievers would do to my stomach in October. After roughly three weeks of September baseball I’m thinking that I should have ordered a few crates…

This season is truly remarkable and unique. The Red Sox have won 103 games and lost a miniscule 48.    A 55-game spread and it’s been like this for months! It’s been a truly memorable season in so many ways, enjoyable from front to back, and yet the Red Sox relief situation has been spreading ugly like a rash since Opening Day. 

In May the rash was isolated to places you can hide under a tee-shirt or shorts and the weeks heading into the trade deadline represented the necessary ointment to make the problem go away. Well, the trade deadline came and went in July and then the waiver deadline came and went again in August and now that rash is spreading in a most gruesome way. Full sleeves and slacks are now required to cover it up.

The 800-pound gorilla that has been hanging around the 2018 Red Sox all season long gained an extra few hundred pounds in September. Fall has arrived and now matters are worse. What was once a need for the Red Sox rapidly turned into a hole, evolved into a flaw and has sadly devolved into a fatal flaw. The 2018 Red Sox deserve better. Solutions are needed; the good news is I have a cure and unlike Rolaids it doesn’t spell relief.  

The great Dick Radatz was one of the most effective relief pitchers to ever put on a uniform. For many years “The Monster,” as he was called, could be heard on WEEI airwaves offering his very well informed opinion on baseball, the Red Sox and pitching in general. He could very frequently be heard saying the following…“Every pitcher wants to start, because your starters are your best pitchers.” Ain’t that the truth. The 2018 Red Sox have certainly proven that statement to be true this regular season. 

During August in this very column I wrote the following about the Red Sox ‘relief core’… “Tryouts are unfolding before our eyes.”

Those aforementioned tryouts have not gone well, particularly of late, which leads me to my point. If the Red Sox want to avoid the seemingly inevitable failures from their cast of current late inning relievers, then simply avoid using them. 

The Red Sox’ best shot to win will come on the backs of six guys: Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and Steven Wright. Add in Craig Kimbrel for the ninth inning and occasionally for an out or two more. That’s seven guys and nobody other than these seven guys should ever see the seventh or eighth inning. Period. Note to Alex Cora: mix ’em up however you like, but these are the only guys you should trust during those oh so critical late innings of October baseball. 

In the postseason when it’s late and close you need a trusted, reliable arm. A go-to. You know who figured that out? Terry Francona, when he deployed Andrew Miller in that break-glass-as-needed relief role to get the biggest outs in as many games as he could two years ago. For this current lot, I think Cora needs to do exactly that at least for the first two rounds. Now how do you do it?

Consensus would say that the Red Sox should start Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello in the ALDS and I fully agree with that sentiment. Moving into the ALCS, consensus would be to potentially add a fourth starter to that mix, which would be either Rodriguez, Eovaldi or Wright, to which I wholeheartedly disagree. 

The Red Sox simply don’t have the reliable bullpen arms behind these guys to make that approach successful in a long series. Between Ryan Brasier, Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes (if he returns) and Joe Kelly, I would give them exactly one batters worth of margin each. Maybe. No more than that and frankly, they’d be fortunate to be granted that much room given their recent performances. For Kelly specifically, consistency has been a season-long epidemic. You simply cannot trust a pitcher with the propensity to walk so many batters in the late innings. Walks are a death sentence and both Kelly and Barnes suffer from offering ill-timed free passes when it matters. 

So the easy solution would be to roll with the three man rotation of Sale, Price and Porcello while having all hands of Rodriguez, Eovaldi and Wright on deck ready to aid in each and every game. I would argue that Brian Johnson should be put into that group as well, because at a minimum he has at least shown the ability to overcome adversity literally from at-bat to at-bat on a consistent basis. That specific quality in Johnson’s makeup lends itself well to the mentality required for succeeding in postseason and he’s been consistent with it, which is more than you can say about anyone not named Kimbrel in that bullpen.

So as the Red Sox ready themselves for October baseball, they would be wise to follow the old adage offered by the all-time great reliever, Dick Radatz, which was essentially to trust your starters. The good news for the Red Sox is they have seven starters they can use creatively to help avoid the nightly issues with their current stable. It’s the only way I can see to avoid these seventh and eighth inning bullpen giveaways, because in the unforgiving times of October baseball, history has proven those flaws to be fatal.

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