BOSTON – When the Boston Red Sox’s bullpen phone rang in the seventh inning of their American League Division Series opener against the New York Yankees and Rick Porcello was told to get warm, the first thought that crossed his mind served as an accurate proxy for every panicked New Englander assessing the fragile state of the Red Sox’s relief corps.
Porcello was supposed to be the Red Sox’s starter in Game 3 of the five-game Division Series, and here he was, summoned in the first game because a 108-win team somehow never managed to find an eighth-inning guy. Or a seventh-inning guy, for that matter. In the moment, Porcello gritting through two outs and serving as a bridge to closer Craig Kimbrel, helped salvage a 5-4 victory that handed Boston a 1-0 advantage in the best-of-five series.
The macro view is not nearly as charitable. The need to mobilize Porcello in the first game of the postseason kindled the greatest fear about Boston and exposed its clearest weakness. It offered ample reason to revisit the words of team president Dave Dombrowski on July 31, when he did not trade for a reliever: “We realistically think our bullpen is pretty good.” And it made clear that if the Red Sox do intend on sojourning deep into October, it will be fraught with peril, nerves, anxiety, agita, nausea and every other feeling a gas-can bullpen foments on the way to 27 outs.
“In a perfect world,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said, “the starter goes six. You have the seventh-inning guy, eighth inning and ninth inning and you move on. To get 27 outs at this stage right now is very difficult. And sometimes you have to go to Plan B or Plan C.”
And using his Game 3 starter as a reliever in Game 1?
“C-and-a-half probably,” Cora said.
Plan C-and-a-half, it turned out, was the right one to conquer the Yankees in their first postseason matchup since Boston’s incredible comeback in the 2004 AL Championship Series. And not just because it worked but because Cora rightly beckoned his best pitcher to cinch a tourniquet on a 5-0 advantage that had bled three runs. In the halcyon days of the first inning, Fenway Park had been giddy at J.D. Martinez’s three-run home run that staked Chris Sale an ample lead. By the time Sale left in the sixth with two runners on base and Ryan Brasier endeavoring to strand them, the majority of the 39,059 in the stands were beginning their flirtation with capriciousness that an inning later would turn into full-blown Chicken Littlehood.
Brasier, the 31-year-old rookie who at this time last year was pitching in Japan, allowed a hit, got an out, uncorked a wild pitch, walked a guy and wasn’t even kind enough on his way out to offer nitroglycerin to every Red Sox fan whose heart attack he helped accelerate. It was 5-2 when Brandon Workman replaced Brasier, and Workman promptly walked Gary Sánchez on four pitches before leaving the bases loaded by striking out Gleyber Torres.
Crisis averted, Workman returned in the seventh and promptly allowed back-to-back singles. The Red Sox’s first two relievers – the ones Cora believed could save Boston from messes – had wobbled. The third, Matt Barnes, walked the bases loaded, struck out Giancarlo Stanton, yielded a run on a groundout and escaped. Porcello’s two outs and four from Kimbrel – who ceded a solo home run in the ninth to Aaron Judge – left Boston in an awkward place: celebrating a win while recognizing the dystopian path ahead that includes not only beating the Yankees and Houston Astros or Cleveland Indians but also doing so when all three boast far greater relief staffs.
“We’re all in,” Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie said. “We’re all in to win this. We expect our guys in the bullpen to be available every game this series. If we play five, we expect them to be available five games. Our training room has become an emergency room. We’re going to ask a lot from these guys.”
Remember: This was just Game 1 of the Division Series. Scrambling this early in the playoffs does not portend particularly well. Nor does the Red Sox’s bullpen limping into October with a 4.84 ERA in the final month of the season. The number more or less reflects the reality of Boston’s bullpen. Brasier is green. Workman is shaky. Barnes is inconsistent. Cora wouldn’t even call upon Joe Kelly. Steven Wright’s knee is hurt, and his status going forward is in question. Eduardo Rodriguez may need to be an emergency starter in Game 3 or 4 if Cora needs to break the glass and use Nathan Eovaldi, the scheduled Game 4 starter, in Game 2. Kimbrel is Kimbrel, one of the game’s best, but he’s not the sort of pitcher the Red Sox can use for two innings more than once a series.
On the other hand, Cora and his charges’ willingness to flout convention and their ability not to abide by the strictures of typical bullpen usage – mainly because no reliever has distinguished himself enough to earn one of those typical roles, yes, but you say tomato, I say to-mah-to – does offer an opportunity. When he was bench coach with Houston last season, Cora saw Astros manager A.J. Hinch wheedle valuable relief innings out of starters. Even last year, Brian Bannister, the Red Sox’s pitching guru, spoke of how defined roles don’t suit the playoffs. Teams, he said, need out-getters.
And in Game 1, outs they got, with the bases loaded in the sixth, with two on in the seventh, with one on in the eighth. That’s playoff baseball in 2018. Take a lead, win now, figure out tomorrow when tomorrow comes.
Tomorrow brings David Price to the mound for his 10th career postseason start. His first nine ended with his team losing. In all but one, he pitched at least six innings. In all but one, he allowed more than two runs, too. The day after another pitcher with a checkered postseason past, Clayton Kershaw, turned in a gem, Price gets his opportunity to stake Boston a commanding lead and keep a beleaguered bullpen from being called upon for the second straight day.
As difficult as it may seem to see Boston carving a path toward the World Series with its bullpen as conflagrant as it is, Kimbrel was succinct in his assessment of how they can do so: “Keep going, and hopefully we’ll have a long October.”
It’s just starting, and while that start wasn’t good, it was good enough. That’s all the Red Sox need, really. Just enough such that “Oh, [expletive]” can become a rallying cry and not a postscript on a 108-win season that was ultimately too good to be true.
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