The Boston Red Sox took a 1-run lead into the 8th inning of yesterday’s contest vs. the New York Yankees after valiantly battling back from a 2-run deficit earlier in the game. Matt Barnes stepped to the hill and allowed a double, a fielder’s choice groundout, and a walk, then got the hook. Craig Kimbrel, Boston’s prized closer, replaced him and, with a man on 1st and 3rd, gave up a double to Brett Gardner that gave the Yankees the lead and homer to Aaron Judge that padded it.
It was a performance eerily reminiscent of Opening Day’s late inning collapse, and many more bullpen debacles from 2017.
While technically the Red Sox had the 2nd best bullpen ERA in 2017 (3.15), and technically they’re ranked 1st in bullpen ERA this year (3.24), there are persistent problems and issues that hang over the relief staff like a black cloud. Who can find consistency in the middle innings, who can perform in high leverage situations, and who the hell is the setup man?
Carson Smith was supposed to be “the guy,” but he’s been hit or miss. Out of 15 appearances, 6 have been hitless, but he’s also allowed 2+ hits in 3 appearances and 2+ runs in 2. His walk rate is worrisome at 11.3%, his 1.54 WHIP is too high, and it’s pretty clear that he hasn’t earned Alex Cora’s trust yet.
Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly have both filled the setup and high leverage roles this year, and Barnes has been mostly good, sporting a .143 opponents’ BA, while Kelly has been even better with a 2.30 ERA, but recent history (yesterday included) points towards both of their inabilities to maintain this high of a level for long stretches.
Brian Johnson has had his spells of good work, and Hector Velazquez has been excellent, but neither of them are natural relievers, and both are being counted on to eat longer stretches of innings when Boston’s starter exits early and to even occasionally spot start in the case of an injury.
Heath Hembree is, well, Heath Hembree. He’s the guy you throw out there when you’re already down 4 runs and you don’t want to waste any of your more “important” guys’ arms, and Marcus Walden is a rookie who made the Spring Training cut after being a non-roster invitee to camp.
Even Craig Kimbrel has shown cracks in his game this year, most recently last night vs. New York and in late April vs. Toronto.
Tyler Thornburg is working his way back, but he hasn’t pitched in a Major League game since 2016, and he can’t be counted on as a savior right out of the gate.
So, who’s it going to be? Who’s going to step up and perform consistently when called upon? That’s currently the biggest question mark for the Red Sox, and as of now, that question remains unanswered.