BOSTON — The Red Sox set a club record by winning 108 games in the regular season. They put an end to any serious talk of a divisional pennant race in early August and demonstrated a cohesive approach under their new manager, Alex Cora, that had not been seen in Boston for several years.
Then why did their entire season seem to be hanging in the balance in the final four innings of Game 1 of their division series against the Yankees on Friday night?
Though the Red Sox created an air of invincibility in 2018, one weakness kept peeking through: their bullpen. In itself, that was not so surprising. Most teams, even the most successful ones, have some flaw that seems to resist a quick fix.
When that flaw comes in such a vital area as the bullpen — especially in contemporary baseball, which uses the relievers basically every game of the season — it can be daunting, to the point where it now seems hard to see the Red Sox winning it all this October without a lot more anxious moments like the ones on Friday.
Boston did end up winning Game 1 by a 5-4 score, but the relievers nearly gave away all of a five-run lead.
Game 2 on Saturday night was a different story, at least for a while. After Red Sox starter David Price gave up three quick runs to the Yankees and failed to make it out of the second inning, the beleaguered Boston bullpen did just fine, holding New York scoreless through the sixth and keeping the game within reach.
But Eduardo Rodriguez, who was primarily a starting pitcher this season but worked out of the bullpen on Saturday, allowed a three-run homer in the top of the seventh to Gary Sanchez that gave New York a 6-1 lead and essentially decided the game.
Cora might not have had to turn to Porcello if Steven Wright, a relief pitcher and knuckleballer, had been available Friday night. Wright had some success in the bullpen late in the regular season, but he has a chronic knee injury and it flared up before Game 1, making him unavailable. And on Saturday, the Red Sox removed him from their active playoff roster, which means he can’t return until the World Series, if Boston gets that far.
With Wright out, Cora abandoned Plans A and B for Game 1 and switched to what he termed Plan “C and a half,’’ informing Porcello, who was scheduled to start Game 3 on Monday in the Bronx, to be immediately available in the bullpen.
And so it was that Porcello sat in the bullpen on Friday, and when the phone rang for him to begin warming up in the seventh inning, his reaction was an expletive.
“Really,” he said with a nod. “That’s what I said.”
Nevertheless, Porcello recorded the first two outs in the top of the eighth before handing off to Craig Kimbrel, Boston’s mostly reliable closer, for a four-out save. But even Kimbrel added to Boston’s anxiety, surrendering a home run to Aaron Judge leading off the ninth, making it a one-run game.
Meanwhile, there was the string of relievers that Boston used on Friday night that just barely got the job done. Ryan Brasier allowed two inherited runners to score. Brandon Workman, who spent time in Class AAA during the season, came in for Brasier and promptly walked Gary Sanchez on four pitches to load the bases.
“Honestly, none of them were even close,” Workman said. But he threw the key pitch of the night, a diving 3-2 curveball that struck out Gleyber Torres with the bases loaded after the Yankees had narrowed the lead to 5-2.
Three of the five Boston relief pitchers in Game 1 — Brasier, Workman and Matt Barnes — recorded five outs while allowing three hits and three walks and throwing two wild pitches. Every Yankee got the message: Get into the Red Sox bullpen and hope to do some damage.
“You want to affect that bullpen as best we can,” Judge said. “It’s a five-game series, and if we can wear them down and get them using that bullpen early, that’s a good thing.”
Adding to Boston’s problem is that Sale has dealt with a shoulder injury for much of the last two months of the season and the Red Sox have to monitor his pitch count. On Friday, he was taken out after 93 pitches.
As for Porcello, he pitched once in relief for Boston in last year’s division-series loss to the Houston Astros. In the 2012 postseason, he pitched out of the bullpen exclusively for Detroit after making 31 starts in the regular season.
That 2012 Tigers bullpen was assembled by Dave Dombrowski, and he faced criticism for a perceived failure to resolve the closer role, which many felt cost the Tigers the World Series that year. Now, Dombrowski is the president of baseball operations for the Red Sox, and although many see similar shortcomings with Boston’s bullpen, it was not statistically terrible this year.
Kimbrel recorded 42 saves in 47 opportunities for an 89.4 percent save rate, which is good but not outstanding. The Boston bullpen had 16 losses in relief, which was the fewest in baseball, but the Red Sox also had the fewest losses in baseball.
The relievers allowed 32 percent of their inherited runners to score, which is a tick above the league average of 31 percent. Similarly, their 20 blown saves were two better than the league average.
But will average be good enough to win in October against the best lineups in baseball? Game 2 on Saturday did provide some hope — Joe Kelly pitched two and a third scoreless innings, and Brasier struck out the side in his one inning of work. Workman followed Brasier and gave up two soft singles, but neither of those runners scored.
Indeed, except for the one pitch from Rodriguez that Sanchez clobbered, the Boston relievers did just fine in Game 2. Then again, they were not being asked to protect a lead, which always puts additional pressure on a bullpen.
After Game 1, Workman defended the Boston bullpen, asserting that “I believe we’re the guys for the job.’’ The rest of this series will continue to test that notion.