By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The score was 7-6.
Long before the scoreboard became a source of humor, and long before the Red Sox had themselves an 11-run margin of victory, the score was 7-6, and the threat of losing the series in Minnesota was very real.
Matt Barnes and Robby Scott combined to precariously let a 7-4 lead in the bottom of the eighth slip to a 7-6 lead, and with no other reliable options left in the bullpen, manager John Farrell decided it was time to abandon the conventions that dictate the closer position and especially Craig Kimbrel.
With one out in the eighth inning and the tying run on third base, Farrell called for his closer to record the two most important outs of the game. And it worked.
Kimbrel got pinch hitter Joe Mauer to stare at strike three, a breaking ball on the outside edge. Kimbrel then blew away Max Kepler with a 98 mph heater for a three-pitch strikeout to extinguish the threat.
It was exactly the type of performance the Red Sox envisioned when they acquired Kimbrel prior to last season– except, of course, it came in the eighth inning.
“That eighth inning was starting out not to be too pretty. Looked like it might have a chance to get away from us,” Farrell said after the win, according to The Boston Globe. “If there’s ever a chance to award a save before the ninth inning, that certainly is it. We had no margin for error.”
Going to Kimbrel was the wise move, as the Red Sox’ closer has been absolutely dominant this year. In 14 appearances, he’s posted a 0.500 WHIP to go with a 1.29 ERA. Opponents are reaching base at just a .160 clip with a .106 batting average. He’s struck out 26 batters while allowing just eight base runners and two runs.
However, using Kimbrel in non-traditional situations has been a dicey endeavor for Farrell. Last year, opponents had a .357 batting average and .400 OBP against Kimbrel in the eighth inning (albeit in a small sample size of five appearances), compared to a .125 batting average and .268 OBP in the ninth inning.
To be sure, Farrell did not revolutionize the sport on Sunday, as he was not the first manager to call upon his closer early. But, anecdotally, it feels as though too often managers are loathe to call upon their closers in the seventh or eighth innings, even if those are the highest-leverage situations of the game. Whether that’s an effect of being beholden to the almighty save statistic is not entirely known, but it likely plays a factor.
Earlier this season, in a game in Detroit, Farrell elected to not use Kimbrel in an eighth-inning situation. Instead, Hembree, Joe Kelly and Scott gave away the game.
And when Farrell tabbed Kimbrel to record a five-out save on Sunday afternoon in Minnesota, he was asking the closer to do something he had never done before in his career.
Both parties were spared from having to worry about such a task, though, when the Red Sox offense exploded for a 10-run top of the ninth inning, thus turning a once-tense ballgame into a comedy show.
After such a lopsided final score, it would be easy to forget the move that prevented the game from potentially slipping away from the Red Sox. Not only did Farrell’s decision help to preserve the win, but it also gives the manager some flexibility with regard to the use of his closer as the season continues.