Boston Red Sox bullpen’s tightrope act will wear thin – SweetSpot

MLB


On Thursday, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees played another barnburner — that’s old-timey speak for a great game for you kids out there.

The Red Sox led 4-0, sat through a rain delay, then watched the Yankees score four runs in the seventh inning off their bullpen. J.D. Martinez homered in the eighth off Dellin Betances, however, and Craig Kimbrel closed it out for a 5-4 win.

First, Martinez’s home run was fun because a fan took away a potential catch from Aaron Judge. It also was fun because Statcast gave the fly ball a hit probability of only 28 percent. It was a classic Yankee Stadium home run:

In case you can’t see on the highlight, here’s a close-up screen grab:

I don’t know if Judge would have caught it — the ball was drifting away from him — but he looked down at his glove like he couldn’t believe he didn’t catch it. And the replay showed the fan who caught the ball kind of hiding behind another fan. Imagine if the Red Sox win the division by one game and the Yankees have to face, say, Shohei Ohtani in the wild-card game.

For that to happen, the Red Sox middle relievers will have to step up their game. One night after Matt Barnes and Kimbrel coughed up a lead in the eighth, Heath Hembree and Joe Kelly combined to give up three hits, two walks and a game-tying wild pitch in the Yankees’ four-run seventh. Kelly allowed two more baserunners in the eighth before escaping with a strikeout of Neil Walker, but the feeling is Alex Cora is still searching for that reliable setup guy for Kimbrel.

Maybe it’s Kelly. Maybe it’s Barnes. Maybe Carson Smith gets back to his pre-injury form of 2015, when he dominated for the Mariners. Knuckleballer Steven Wright is about to return and he’ll pitch out of the bullpen, although he’ll have to pitch his way back into a key role.

None of those guys are bad, but in this AL East race, the Red Sox need a couple of them to be great. The bullpen is 12th in the majors in ERA, sixth in strikeout rate, seventh in lowest walk rate and ninth in wOBA allowed. Solid numbers across the board other than the so-so ERA. What the pen hasn’t been is especially clutch, ranking 13th in the majors in FanGraphs’ “clutch” rating (basically, pitching well in close games) heading into Thursday’s games.

Some of this is nitpicking, but because it might take 100 wins to claim the AL East, all facets of the team have to click. The jury remains out on the Boston setup guys.

Freddie and Ozzie and everyone hits: Freddie Freeman had the first five-hit game of his career and Ozzie Albies slugged this go-ahead grand slam in the seventh inning in the Braves’ 16-hit, 9-2 win over the Marlins:

We mentioned in this space that one of the impressive aspects of the Braves’ start is they had played a pretty tough schedule early on. In fact, their strength of schedule based on opponents’ winning percentage actually ranks as the toughest so far. Well, now they get to play the Marlins, as Thursday’s win was the first of a four-game series. They get to play Miami again next weekend, sandwiched around four games against the Cubs.

Aside from the offense once again doing its job, the interesting takeaway from this game was the return of giant Brazilian lefty Luiz Gohara. Yes, it’s required that all baseball writers preface his name with “giant Brazilian.” Anyway, Gohara was impressive in his call-up as a starter last season, but groin and ankle injuries suffered in spring training forced him to rehab in the minors (where he struggled with 10 walks and five home runs in 15⅔ innings). He pitched the last three innings to get a save, and with the Braves’ rotation going well he’ll pitch out of the bullpen for now. His fastball hit 97 mph in his first inning of work before tailing off, but he has the stuff to be a big weapon down there.

Do you want to see Shohei Ohtani leg out a double? Of course you do.

A few innings later, Ohtani did this:

That brought his average up to .354 and with 10 extra-base hits in 65 at-bats. He’s slugging .677, fourth best in baseball. Not bad.

The other guy from Japan: OK, so Miles Mikolas is hitting .059 while Ohtani is hitting .344, but Mikolas continues to impress on the mound. The former Padre and Ranger returned to the United States after pitching the past three seasons in Japan — where he had great success with a 2.18 ERA — and has excelled as a strike-throwing machine. He allowed one run in 6⅔ innings in a 2-1 win over the Padres to lower his ERA to 2.51, although he did issue his third walk of the season. Still, a 35-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio will work.

Carlos Martinez just landed on the DL, so Mikolas suddenly looks like the staff ace. He’s even looking like the Cardinals’ best offseason pickup as Marcell Ozuna continues to struggle. We should look at the Cardinals more in depth in an upcoming issue of Real or Not because they’re winning even with Ozuna, Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter all in deep slumps.

I was on Kevin Wheeler’s radio show in St. Louis on Thursday and he pointed out Ozuna’s exit velocity actually is higher than last year’s — he’s just hitting a lot of ground balls to the pull side, in part because he’s reaching for a lot of outside pitches and not going the other way. Ozuna had a couple of hits on Thursday, so maybe that will get him going.

By the way, my man Tommy Pham homered and scored two runs and is hitting .330/.440/.563. Maybe that MVP pick wasn’t so silly.





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