By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If your favorite thing to do in life is complain about the Red Sox bullpen, then Opening Day was the day for you.
The Red Sox were cruising in St. Petersburg thanks to six scoreless innings from Chris Sale, who struck out nine Tampa Bay Rays in his first career Opening Day start for Boston. He turned the game over to the Boston bullpen after 92 pitches with a 4-0 lead, and Matt Barnes kept up his end of the bargain with a 1-2-3 seventh inning.
The Red Sox had six outs to go and a four-run cushion to notch Alex Cora’s first win as Boston’s manager. Easy peasy, right?
Not quite. Joe Kelly came on to start the eighth inning and struggled to find the strike zone. He began his 2018 season by walking Daniel Robertson on seven pitches. He battled back from a 2-0 count and struck out DH Rob Refsnyder on five pitches, but then surrendered a double to deep right to leadoff man Matt Duffy, plating Tampa Bay’s first run.
Still, a 4-1 lead felt pretty comfortable at the time, especially with the luxury of having Craig Kimbrel for the ninth inning (or possibly in the eighth, if things got really bad). Unfortunately, it never got there, even though things went from bad to worse in a hurry. Kelly walked Kevin Kiermaier on six pitches. Then Carlos Gomez on six pitches. In the blink of an eye there was a Ray on ever base and still only one out.
Cora said during Spring Training that he may call upon Kimbrel early should the situation arise, though he added last week that it wasn’t something he wanted to do early in the season. Kimbrel had an abbreviated spring after he left Fort Myers to be with his young daughter, who underwent a second heart surgery back in Boston, but Cora said Thursday that his All-Star closer is ready for the big moments. That being said, he didn’t want to ask for a four-out save on Thursday.
“I’m not going to put him in that spot right now. We think he’s ready, but I don’t think that’s fair to him to come in in that situation. It’s not a clean inning,” Cora explained. “We mapped it out, we talked about it, and we stuck to it.”
That’s a stance he’ll likely be second-guessing much of Thursday night.
Instead of going to his flamethrower after Kelly’s debacle, Cora went to Carson Smith, who threw just 6.2 innings last season after recovering from Tommy John surgery. Instead of cleaning up Kelly’s mess, Smith got pretty filthy himself. He walked pinch-hitter Brad Miller on five pitches to make it a 4-2 game. His three-pitch strikeout of Wilson Ramos was just a tease and only provided false hope for the Red Sox. Smith started 1-2 on Denard Span, but that quickly deteriorated into a 3-2 count. The left fielder tattooed a sinker by Smith to right field, clearing the bases and giving Tampa Bay a 5-4 lead. Span scored on an infield single by Adeiny Hechavarria, and that 4-0 lead for Boston was suddenly a 6-4 deficit.
The bottom of the eighth inning was as painful as watching your dog hack up a chicken bone. Kelly and Smith threw 49 pitches, and only 24 of them went for strikes. Kelly can throw the ball really, really fast, but on Thursday, he threw it really, really fast outside of the zone. Smith wasn’t much better, though he at least threw more strikes (11) than balls (nine). Even that isn’t all too great, considering one of those strikes is the pitch Span crushed.
Smith was given a blown save and tagged with the loss in the box score. He and Kelly should really discuss splitting those stats.
Thursday’s loss is only one game of 162 and the two teams will be right back on the diamond on Friday night, so maybe the bad taste won’t linger too long for the Red Sox. But that is as brutal of a loss as they can come, especially when it’s the first glimpse of a team with World Series aspirations.
Cora said he slept well on Wednesday night heading into his managerial debut, which is even more impressive considering his eight-month-old twin daughters are with him in Florida. Chances are he won’t be enjoying that same pleasant slumber on Thursday night. Maybe those two little girls will keep him up, but it’s more likely he loses sleep because of his two setup men who couldn’t throw strikes on Opening Day.