NEW YORK — It’s a best-of-three American League Division Series now for the Boston Red Sox, and they’re going to have steal a game in enemy territory or see their 108-win season end with a first-round exit and hear 50,000 Yankees fans singing “New York, New York” to Aaron Judge‘s boombox.
To avoid that heartache, the much-maligned Boston bullpen will have to deliver some big outs, for as much as manager Alex Cora would like to ride his starting rotation, this is postseason baseball 2018 and that means plenty of relievers pitching plenty of key innings.
Cora already has turned to his bullpen for some heavy workloads in the first two games. Chris Sale went 5⅓ innings in the first game, and Cora used five relievers to get the final 11 outs, including a two-out appearance from starter Rick Porcello. After David Price sucked the life out of Fenway Park in Game 2, the bullpen had to throw 7⅓ innings. Overall, the pen threw 89 pitches in Game 1 and 123 pitches in Game 2.
That certainly wasn’t the preferred plan heading into the series.
“We work differently than other teams,” Cora had said prior to the first game. “We relied on our starters throughout the season. They carry us. We felt that on a nightly basis they were going to give us a chance to win — either five innings, six innings, whatever. They were very consistent about it.”
The bullpen finished ninth in the majors with a 3.72 ERA but struggled the final two months, as its ERA rose to 4.34 ERA, 20th in the majors. Matt Barnes, who had emerged as the team’s top setup reliever, pitched sparingly over the final month with inflammation in his hip, although he is back now. The depth was affected, however, when Steven Wright reinjured his knee prior to Game 1 and was later removed from the roster, replaced by Heath Hembree. Wright had pitched his way into a key role with a strong September, when he allowed two runs in 13⅔ innings.
One thing Cora isn’t concerned about — at least not yet — is a fatigue factor for his relievers.
“We’ve been taking care of them for the last month. That was the luxury of having a big lead in the division. So their workload the last month has been very, very low,” he said prior to Game 2. “You have studies and you talk to people and all this cool stuff that they do upstairs. And we feel that right now they are ready to go. If they have to pitch like Brandon Morrow last year in the World Series [when Morrow pitched in all seven games], they’re all-in, they’ll pitch five games.”
Ryan Brasier and Brandon Workman appeared in both of the first two games. After wobbling with his command in a 15-pitch outing in Game 1, Brasier was sharper in Game 2, striking out the side in his one inning. That included a pumped-up whiff of Gary Sanchez, as Brasier had motioned to Sanchez to get back in the batter’s box after the Yankees catcher had stepped out before three straight pitches.
Echoing Cora, Brasier said there are no limits in October and the pen is ready to keep up this pace if necessary.
“It’s the playoffs,” Brasier said. “You gotta do what you gotta do and the charge ought to be ready when the phone rings, so I think we can keep doing it.”
Brasier is a 31-year-old rookie who has emerged as a key arm. He pitched in seven games for the Los Angeles Angels in 2013, missed nearly two full seasons with Tommy John surgery, bounced from the Oakland Athletics organization to Japan in 2017 and then came to the Red Sox this season. He was called up July 9 and posted a 1.60 ERA over 33⅔ innings, allowing just two home runs.
With his 97 mph fastball and slider, Brasier is a matchup for all of that right-handed power in the Yankees’ lineup. In Game 2, he fanned Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and Sanchez, working around an error and a walk to Luke Voit — all right-handed batters. Look for Brasier to face that part of the order again at some point in Game 3 or 4.
Brasier emphasized the obvious key: You have to keep the ball in the yard against the Yankees, who set a major league record with 267 home runs.
“All their runs tonight came from the home run,” he said after Game 2. “They didn’t break the record for no reason. They can swing it.”
That’s why Joe Kelly is another huge key. The hard-throwing righty has yo-yoed throughout his career from moments of dominance to infuriating bouts of wildness. He replaced Price in the second inning in the second game and cruised through 25 pitches in 2⅓ scoreless frames. Through May, he had allowed a .128 batting average. Then, in June, he had more walks than strikeouts. In September, he allowed a .324 average and .422 OBP. The one thing about Kelly, however, is he’s difficult to take yard, giving up just four home runs in 65⅔ innings. In 38 career postseason innings with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Red Sox, he has allowed just two home runs.
Kelly: 98.1 mph average fastball velocity
Craig Kimbrel: 97.1 mph
Brasier: 96.8 mph
Barnes: 96.5 mph
In other words, the Red Sox have the power arms. The Yankees make you earn your strikes, however, and that’s the challenge for this group. When they go south, it’s because they start walking too many batters.
Cora doesn’t have time to let them work through those issues. It’s all about finding the hot hand. Maybe it will be Kelly. Barnes threw a scoreless inning in Game 1. Brasier against the righties. And Kimbrel for a four- or five-out save.
Cora might have another arm available to him in Price. Nathan Eovaldi has been moved up to start Game 3, with Porcello pushed back to Game 4. Price threw just 42 pitches on Saturday. Cora said on Sunday he’ll call Price later in the evening to see how feels. Eovaldi — oh, he averages 97 mph with his fastball — pitched three times against New York after coming over from the Tampa Bay Rays and allowed one run in 16 innings. (The Yankees also lit Eovaldi up once when he was still with the Rays.)
Maybe Eovaldi goes deep into the third game. More likely, the Red Sox will need at least 60 pitches or so from the bullpen. The season is on the line.