David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Red Sox bullpen finally starting to show it has the goods for October

Alex Reimer
September 05, 2018 - 11:32 am

The Red Sox’ bullpen has been a punching bag for the bulk of the summer. Seemingly every October doomsday scenario about maybe the best regular season team in franchise history includes late-inning meltdowns from an unproven relief corps and suddenly shaky closer. The concern reached a fever pitch last Tuesday, when Matt Barnes and Craig Kimbrel combined to surrender four runs to the dreadful Marlins in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively. 

While those questions are bound to remain throughout September, the Red Sox’ pen has shown some glimmers of hope in recent days. Maybe things will work out after all.

Of course, nothing can be accomplished unless Kimbrel gets back on track. He’s only tossed four clean innings since June 22, a stark change from his usual dominance. But he did throw a scoreless frame Monday, protecting the Red Sox’ 8-2 win over the Braves. Kimbrel has only appeared in nine games since Aug. 1, which could contribute to his lack of command. In an effort to ready the Red Sox for the playoffs, perhaps it would behoove Alex Cora to find more regular work for his All-Star closer.

From a personnel standpoint, there’s nothing the Red Sox can do about Kimbrel. They will live and die with him in the ninth inning –– or maybe the eighth, if Cora decides to use Kimbrel as more of a relief ace in the playoffs. The true uncertainty comes before Kimbrel. Up to this point, nobody has taken control of a particular role. Barnes was the leading candidate for the top setup job, but he was dreadful in August, posting a 9.28 ERA and surrendering four home runs. 

Barnes' struggles have created an opening for Joe Kelly to slide back into the high-leverage mix, and he’s made the most of his opportunity. Kelly has only allowed three earned runs in 16 appearances since the start of August, including a scoreless performance Tuesday. As the Globe’s Alex Speier points out, Kelly’s changeup has emerged as a signature pitch, generating swings and misses nearly half of the time. Kelly struck out Braves outfielder Ender Inciarte after throwing him a first-pitch changeup Tuesday.

Ryan Brasier is the other hard-throwing righty who’s risen up the bullpen ranks in recent weeks, owning a dazzling 1.44 ERA in 24 appearances and striking out 8.3 batters per nine innings. Look for Cora to continue to mix Brasier in more critical spots as the regular season winds down. 

With a shortened rotation in the playoffs, starting pitchers who head to the bullpen can sometimes be the biggest x-factors for teams. Knuckleballer Steven Wright could fill the middle innings void for the Red Sox, giving opposing lineups a much different look. He threw a scoreless sixth inning Tuesday, and it's easy to imagine Cora deploying Wright in the middle frames before turning to Kelly, Brasier or Barnes late. That’s definitely a recipe for keeping hitters off balance. All four batters who faced Wright Tuesday were retired in their next plate appearance. 

As the Red Sox have learned over the last two years, everything is irrelevant unless they get competent starting pitching. The health of Chris Sale and David Price remains the biggest question heading into the postseason. 

But assuming this prized rotation holds up its end of the bargain, we're finally seeing the makings of an October-ready bullpen. Tryouts will last for another month.