Boston Red Sox

Red Sox' Bullpen Already a Cause for Concern With 161 Games to Go

Tomase: Yes, we're already worried about the Red Sox' bullpen originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Those of us in the business of trying to extrapolate universal meaning from Opening Day can draw an obvious conclusion about the Red Sox after Friday's 6-5 loss to the Yankees -- their bullpen looks like a problem.

It's not closer-by-committee blowing up in Theo Epstein's face in 2003, but it might be worse. Those Red Sox didn't know who'd pitch the last inning. These aren't sure about six through infinity.

Bogaerts exits early, bullpen struggles as Red Sox fall to Yankees

On Thursday, manager Alex Cora seemed intent on riding Garrett Whitlock until he gave up a run or a comet hit the field. After D.J. LeMahieu's tying homer in the eighth spared humanity, Matt Strahm escaped the bottom of the order despite going 2-0 on all three hitters he faced.

In the ninth, Cora didn't summon erstwhile closer Matt Barnes or returning veterans Ryan Brasier or Hirokazu Sawamura to keep the game tied. He instead tabbed Hansel Robles, who didn't even make his spring debut until Monday, thanks to visa issues.

Robles, as was the case last September, proved up to the task, retiring the dangerous Giancarlo Stanton before Jake Diekman and Brasier combined to surrender the tying run in the 10th.

That set the stage for rookie Kutter Crawford, who allowed Josh Donaldson's walk-off single up the middle that unleashed the familiar strains of Frank Sinatra and sent 46,000 fans home happy.

It also sent Cora back to the drawing board. He spent much of the spring uneasily noting the decreased velocity of Barnes and Brasier, and he didn't hesitate to shake things up by including Crawford and Robles on the Opening Day roster, with late arrival Tyler Danish also in the mix until the end of camp.

Those aren't the moves of a manager who's comfortable with his arms.

When Thursday's game went to extra innings, the advantage swung massively to the Yankees. Not only could they hand the ninth to All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman, they didn't unleash Michael King, their eighth pitcher of the night, until extra innings. The Boston College grad with electric stuff limited the Red Sox to one hit in two innings, striking out three to earn the win. The only Red Sox reliever with comparable stuff is Whitlock.

All things considered, Red Sox relievers weren't awful. Whitlock made one mistake. The two runs in extra innings were unearned, thanks to the ghost runner rule. But take a step back, put yourself in Cora's shoes, and answer this question: Do you feel good about his bullpen?

In a perfect world, Sawamura or Brasier would've bridged the sixth to Whitlock after Nathan Eovaldi went five innings. And then Whitlock would've handed the ball to Barnes in the ninth.

Beyond Whitlock, it's hard to say who's reliable. Watching the manager already scramble into postseason mix-and-match survival mode with 161 games remaining shouldn't exactly fill fans with confidence.

John Tomase

Of course, the closer hasn't been right since last July, and Cora revealed that he was unavailable because of back tightness. While that may be true, it's also reasonable to say the Red Sox wouldn't have thrown him into such a high-pressure situation after a lackluster spring that featured significant downticks in velocity.

But Barnes represents just one issue in a bullpen full of them. Sawamura, Diekman, and Brasier also struggled in Fort Myers. The Red Sox can only hope it's a result of the truncated spring and that once they regain their sea legs, they'll slot back into roles. The return of workhorse left-hander Josh Taylor (back) from the injured list will also help.

Beyond Whitlock, however, it's hard to say who's reliable. Cora clearly believes in Robles, but he faded in the postseason and would be a much better weapon in the sixth or seventh than the eighth or ninth. Watching the manager already scramble into postseason mix-and-match survival mode with 161 games remaining shouldn't exactly fill fans with confidence.

He has no choice to keep riding his guys, though. With starters less valuable than ever and managers content to hand the ball to their bullpen as early as the fourth or fifth inning, a mediocre relief corps can doom a season.

We're not there yet, but the warning signs are distressing with no question more ominous than this -- who gets the ball tomorrow?

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