By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Everybody knows about the Boston bullpen’s struggles in the eighth inning this season. But on Tuesday night in the Bronx, with a chance to sew up a third straight division title, the bullpen couldn’t even get to the eighth inning. The problems surfaced an inning early.
It was in the seventh inning that Brandon Workman entered the game. To that point, the Yankees had mustered just two hits and four total base runners through six innings, on a night when Yankee Stadium was half-empty and the home team did not appear to have the necessary fight to really make a game of it. The Red Sox led 1-0, and even despite the known bullpen issues, it looked like it would be enough.
That was, so long as Brandon Workman didn’t enter the game and throw 11 out of 16 pitches for balls, thereby thrusting the Yankees right back into the game. As you surely know by know, that’s precisely what Workman did, giving way to Ryan Brasier, who promptly served up the meatball to end all meatballs (an 82 mph slider over the heart of the plate that didn’t really break at all, to be exact) that went for a three-run game-winning home run by Neil Walker. And that was that. Even a pair of dreadful fielding errors in the top of the ninth wasn’t enough to sink the Yankees on this night, as New York held on for a 3-2 win, in a game that had all the buzz of a mid-March meeting in Fort Myers.
After the loss, Alex Cora expressed great confidence in his bullpen for the umpteenth time this season. And that confidence hinges upon … the eventual return of the injured Matt Barnes.
“When we get everybody healthy, we should be fine,” Cora said. “As you guys know, Barnes is a big part of what we’re trying to do in the bullpen. That’s a guy we’ve relied on the whole season, and when we comes back, we know we’ve got Craig [Kimbrel], we’ve got Barnesy, we’ve got Ryan.”
Cora is obviously going to express confidence in his players whenever speaking publicly. It would do him no good to do otherwise. But Matt Barnes had a 9.64 ERA and 1.714 WHIP in 10 appearances in the month of August. He was having a solid season prior to August, but still, his eighth-inning ERA this year 4.11, and his WHIP has been 1.337. He’s been decent, but not nearly good enough for anyone to believe that his return from an injured hip will suddenly make Boston’s bullpen reliable.
Realistically, now, after seemingly everyone in the bullpen has gotten a crack at some high-leverage situations in recent weeks as part of a tryout of sorts for the eighth inning role, Cora really doesn’t have any more answers than he did at the start.
These numbers right here say all that needs to be said:
Kimbrel, for all of his post-All Star break struggles, only accounts for three of those blown saves. And he accounts for 11 of the saves.
But overall the bullpen — by the measure of winning and losing games they should be winning — has been the worst in the American League for two months.
As a result, when it’s finally time for the playoffs to begin, you’d be hard-pressed to reach any conclusion other than this one: In a one-run game in the eighth inning, Alex Cora is going to have to guess. And he’s going to have to hope he gets lucky.
After months and months (and months) of debate and analysis and discussions about who can fill the Red Sox’ eighth-inning role in games that matter, there’s not one answer. It’s just not there.
Joe Kelly seemed to lose the job first, with Heath Hembree and Barnes losing it next, followed by Brasier — who seemed like a really good choice for a while, perhaps right up until that 3-2 slider to Neil Walker. Steven Wright has technically gotten the job done of late, but he’s been unable to get through any of his last five relief appearances without walking at least one batter. Despite not allowing any runs, his WHIP has been 1.667 in those outings. The knuckleball and the word “reliability” don’t always go hand in hand, and Cora’s surely aware of that.
It’s possible that Tuesday’s starter — Nathan Eovaldi — ends up taking on the eighth-inning role if/when he’s moved to the bullpen in October. That’s a positive thought the day after Eovaldi’s six shining innings in New York, to be sure. And his 97 mph fastball seems to be fitting for a late-innings bullpen role. Yet one good night in the Bronx doesn’t erase Eovaldi’s performance in the month leading up to Tuesday: a 6.58 ERA and a flat 2.000 WHIP in 26 innings of work between Aug. 10 and Sept. 11. Eovaldi may make sense for the eighth-inning role … until he doesn’t.
Put it all together, and at this point of the year, with just a week-and-a-half left in the regular season, you may have your guy. Someone else may have another guy. Everyone may have a preference, a gut feeling, an inference, a premonition — whatever it may be. And Alex Cora may have his. That choice may be changing every 24 hours, though.
And when it comes to that moment — say, a pivotal ALDS Game 3, with the Red Sox leading 1-0 in the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium — and Cora has to make a choice, his only hope is to … hope. Perhaps he’ll guess right, but all he can do is guess. Right now, there’s no right answer.