Red Sox bullpen has rebounded since early season implosions

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 08: Joe Kelly
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 08: Joe Kelly /

After a rocky start to the season, the Red Sox bullpen is settling in.

The Red Sox bullpen had a disastrous start to the season, blowing a six run lead in the eighth inning against the Rays on Opening Day. The scene at Tropicana Field on March 29 was an ugly one for the Red Sox bullpen, who showed as much mental weakness as 2017’s team.

Joe Kelly walked off the field with a 108.00 ERA after only recording one out, only to see Carson Smith pour gasoline on the fire by adding to the bullpen implosion. Smith’s ERA stood at 27.00 after his bases loaded meltdown. Not exactly the start Red Sox fans were looking for from their high leverage relievers.

Fast forward to April 3 in Miami, where Matt Barnes blows the lead the Red Sox had just taken in the 11th inning. Boston battled back to capture the win, but questions swirled about the state of the bullpen moving forward.

Surely the Red Sox pen wouldn’t let down the fans on Fenway’s opening day?

After a pitching duel through seven innings on April 5, Smith was called upon to keep the game tied. Instead, he gets waxed for a two-run bomb by Matt Duffy. Again, the Red Sox battle back to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, before winning the game in the 12th on Hanley Ramirez‘s heroics. If it weren’t for Ramirez, the Red Sox may have lost consecutive games instead of won them.

Despite the fans elation toward the team’s offensive heroics, the spineless bullpen served as a black cloud on the team’s sun-shining start. The only reliable piece in the bullpen was star closer Craig Kimbrel.

Even on April 11 at home against the Yankees the Red Sox bullpen disappointed. The Red Sox had clawed their way back from an 8-1 deficit to the Yankees after J.D. Martinez‘s grand slam. Before the Red Sox could say “We’re right back in the game,” Barnes gets battered for two runs in the top of the sixth, negating any momentum the Red Sox had just grasped. The Sox never recovered and lost the game, 10-7.

The first time the Red Sox held a lead that was less than three runs was on April 15 against the Orioles in Fenway. Boston claimed the lead in the sixth inning and never looked back. Heath Hembree pitched a scoreless seventh, Barnes followed with a scoreless eighth and Craig Kimbrel shut the door in the ninth. Finally, the Red Sox had succeeded in a multi-inning run prevention during a tight game.

As the Red Sox have loudly blown teams out for many games on the young season, the bullpen has quietly established their footing.

After dominating against the Angels without surrendering a single run for the entire series, the bullpen blanked the A’s for 5 2/3 innings of relief. Hector Velazquez, Barnes and Kelly combined to preserve the lead for the Red Sox’ 17th victory of the year. Most notably, Barnes passed his first high leverage test in the seventh by striking out Matt Joyce in a full count with the bases loaded.

Barnes’ ERA now sits at 3.38, while Smith’s is at 5.40 and Kelly’s is at 4.15. None are spectacular, but all have made huge strides since early-season struggles. Kelly’s 4.15 is a significant improvement from his eye-soring 108.00 ERA to begin the season.

Not to mention, Kelly has shown some attitude and guts by waving on Yankees first baseman Tyler Austin to brawl after purposely hitting him. Anytime you protect your teammate by plunking an opponent, you’re bound to win some respect from the club house. But telling a Yankees no-name hardo to come get some on the mound will win you a lifetime of respect from the entire city of Boston.

Thanks to an offensive barrage, there has been a lack of high leverage opportunities for the bullpen thus far. However, they may be in line for a pretty solid season after all.

According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe the pen has quietly produced impressive numbers since the Opening Day blunder.

"Sox relievers gave up six earned runs on Opening Day, but since then they have a 2.65 ERA and a .198 opponents’ average. Opponents are 7 for their last 70 (.100) against Sox relievers. Sox relievers have allowed no runs in their last 19⅓ innings and one run in their last 25⅓. The longest scoreless streak by Sox relievers in 2017 was 26 innings, from June 11-17."

Not many would’ve expected the bullpen to be this impressive after the disappointing performance on Opening Day. Many thought the Red Sox’ offense nor bullpen would be able to match the Yankees’ star-studded cast.

Yet, Cafardo points out the Red Sox’ bullpen on paper wasn’t up to par with the Yankees’ before the season started. But that notion has changed.

"After all, they had a pen to die for, from Chad Green to Tommy Kahnle to Dave Robertson to Dellin Betances to Aroldis Chapman. The Yankee bullpen hasn’t been great in 2018 and Betances looks as if he’s really wiped out."

The Red Sox have a 3.31 bullpen ERA, while the Yankees’ bullpen sits at 4.17.

The Red Sox are outhitting the Yankees on offense, but out pitching their highly regarded bullpen would be the icing on the cake.

Kelly acknowledged the team’s success when asked by Cafardo.

"“It’s been awesome,” said Kelly. “As a pitching staff, it’s been going good. The starting staff has done tremendously well. They’re doing everything they ask. They’re going six and seven innings and keeping the pitch counts down and handing it over to the pen and we’ve been able to do the job except for that first game.”"

Without losing sight of perspective, the Red Sox have only played 19 out of 162 games. The offense and starting pitching have both been phenomenal, and the bullpen hasn’t been tested too often yet.

Kelly still needs to throw strikes and put batters away in two-strike counts.

Smith is still searching for consistency after recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Barnes is still capable of multiple heartbreaks and late-inning collapses.

Next: Red Sox: Introducing the new and improved Mookie Betts

But they all have 143 games left to prove us wrong.