Red Sox reminded of failed bullpen plan in loss to Yankees


The Yankees locked down the final three innings of Sunday night’s game with a dominant bullpen trio, reminding the Boston Red Sox of what might have been.

The Boston Red Sox caught a glimpse of what an elite set of relievers can do to shutdown even the best lineups in baseball in Sunday night’s loss to the New York Yankees.

Boston has the best offense in the game, yet they were helpless against the most dominant trio of relievers in the majors – Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees managed to make it through six innings with starter Masahiro Tanaka holding a two-run lead, but they may as well have been up by double-digits. Either way it was a seemingly insurmountable deficit for the Red Sox to make up against the power arms in the Yankees bullpen.

Betances added to his league-leading Holds total with a clean 7th inning. He struck out Travis Shaw to end the inning, giving him 79 strikeouts in only 45.0 innings, more than any other reliever in the majors. Which reliever has the second most strikeouts? That would be his teammate, Andrew Miller, who worked around a rare walk before punching out Dustin Pedroia to end the 8th. If it wasn’t painful enough for the Red Sox to be abused by those two, the Yankees finished them off by handing the ball to Chapman, whose fastball touched 103 mph.

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New York’s bullpen overall hasn’t been significantly better than Boston’s. Yankees relievers own a collective 3.63 ERA that ranks 7th in the American League, just ahead of a Red Sox bullpen that has a 3.81 ERA. It’s that deadly trio at the back end of the Yankees bullpen that is the envy of the league. Give them a lead after six innings to protect and say goodnight.

Part of Dave Dombrowski’s plan in his first offseason at the helm of the Red Sox front office was to assemble a lights out bullpen, following the blueprint of the Yankees and the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals. He made trades for Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, who along with incumbent closer Koji Uehara were supposed to give Boston their own Big Three to lock down the late innings.

Except it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Smith barely stayed on the active roster long enough to grab a cup of coffee before he was shut down with season-ending Tommy John surgery. Kimbrel has had a solid season by the standards of most closers, but his 3.55 ERA is easily a career-high and nearly double his career average. His 13.64 K/9 is still among the best in the league, but it’s a notch below the top-tier of the pair of Yankees setup men. Now Kimbrel has landed on the disabled list as well with a knee injury that could sideline him until September.

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Then there is Uehara, who has reclaimed his role in the 9th inning in the absence of Kimbrel, despite scuffling through the worst season of his career. The 41-year old is showing his age, resulting an a bloated 4.54 ERA that is nearly double last year’s. He has shown flashes of his old self, but the untouchable splitter that baffled hitters for years has too often stayed flat over the plate. He’s still striking out hitters at a high level, but his 9 walks and 8 home runs allowed already border on career-highs when we’re barely beyond the midpoint of the season.

A dominant bullpen could have covered up for the concerns in the starting rotation, much as the Royals relievers helped pave the way to a championship last year. Baltimore’s starting rotation doesn’t strike fear into opposing lineups, but they have a pair of All-Star relievers in Zach Britton (0.68 ERA) and Brad Brach (0.88 ERA) to finish teams off with. Those two are first and second respectively in ERA among AL pitchers with a minimum of 20 innings this season, while the Orioles bullpen ranks second in the league overall. The difference in late-inning relief is one of the primary reasons the O’s have an edge over the Red Sox in the division standings.

Boston’s bullpen should be solid once Kimbrel returns. The recent addition of Brad Ziegler will help add needed depth in the late innings, while he has the experience to help Uehara with the closing duties while Kimbrel is sidelined. He’ll help mitigate the loss of Smith, but the Red Sox still need a healthy Kimbrel and for Uehara to return to form in order for this bullpen to thrive at the elite level they aimed for.

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The Red Sox had a solid plan for revamping a bullpen that was one of the league’s worst a year ago, but injuries and regression have conspired to spoil those efforts. The bullpen is much improved, but they haven’t jumped into that elite level as expected.

When healthy, this is a good core of relievers. The question is, will it be good enough?