Andrew Benintendi

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Impossible to feel good about Red Sox bullpen with October around the corner

John Tomase
September 07, 2018 - 11:05 pm
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How you feeling about that Red Sox bullpen?

For three-quarters of Friday night's showdown with the Astros, the Red Sox were the better team. David Price limited the defending World Series champs to one hit through six innings. Mookie Betts stole a run with a daring first-to-third two batters into the opening frame. Xander Bogaerts provided some breathing room with a solo homer, his 20th of the season.

Then the game got turned over to the respective bullpens. And the Red Sox crumbled.

Ryan Brasier, one year removed from the Japanese minor leagues, entered perhaps the highest-pressure situation he has faced in his big-league career. Three batters later, the Astros had erased a 2-0 deficit to open a 3-2 lead.

The Red Sox rallied to tie in the bottom of the seventh, hoping right-hander Joe Kelly could keep it that way in the eighth. No such luck. He instead allowed a pair of infield singles before a single, sacrifice fly, wild pitch and another single plated three runs.

And so went Houston's 6-3 victory in a matchup of the two best teams in the American League, if not all of baseball. Boston's road to the World Series will almost certainly pass through Houston, and Friday night provided another sobering reminder that for all their considerable strengths, the Red Sox remain in danger of suffering a fatal flaw.

"Obviously we have to be better," Cora said.

The Astros are just the kind of team to exploit it. Their run differential of plus-238 actually rates ahead of the Red Sox' plus-220, and correlates to 97 wins instead of their actual 88. The Red Sox, meanwhile, have outperformed their expected win total by five.

We've spilled lots of imaginary ink bemoaning the fate of the bullpen, but the problem is real. Take Brasier. He has emerged as the most reliable setup arm in Alex Cora's stable. Only one problem -- no one knows if he can handle postseason pressure.

Asking him to record huge outs for a World Series contender isn't ideal, especially on a team with a $240 million payroll. So watching him allow an RBI double to Yuli Gurriel on his first pitch and then a two-out double to pinch hitter Tony Kemp was the opposite of encouraging.

Kelly, meanwhile, had righted the ship in August after a disastrous July, but consistency has never been his hallmark and he lacked it on Friday, particularly when he bounced a curveball that allowed an insurance run to score. He ended up allowing four hits and three runs in an inning. Not every ball was hit hard, but it was enough to earn Kelly the L.

"I wouldn’t say fatigued," Kelly said. "It’s just, playing good baseball teams that are putting together good at-bats. It’s just one of those things. You can struggle now, struggle in the beginning of the year, struggle in the middle of the year. It’s basically a timing thing. Everyone feels good down there. We’re trying to win the division and obviously trying to get into the playoffs. Everyone is healthy. That’s the main thing."

That's not even true. Cora said after the game that setup man Matt Barnes has a sore hip and will miss a few days.

So where does that leave Cora and the Red Sox? Hoping that their starters can go deep come October, that their offense builds big leads, and that the opportunities for the bullpen to implode are minimized.

That might be possible against some of the lesser lights, but not the Astros. The relentless defending champs built to make bad bullpens pay.

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