Red Sox: Spineless bullpen will be downfall of AL East

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 09: Christian Vazquez #7 of the Boston Red Sox reacts to the 9-6 loss to the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on May 9, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 09: Christian Vazquez #7 of the Boston Red Sox reacts to the 9-6 loss to the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on May 9, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

The Red Sox have few glaring needs on the roster, but the bullpen is one of them.

That didn’t take long.

Just when we thought the Red Sox bullpen may have settled in for the season, they implode for a second consecutive game against the Yankees. This time it was a combination of Matt Barnes and Craig Kimbrel in the eighth inning. The Red Sox lost the game 9-6, and with it, the American League East division lead.

This should come to no surprise, the circus that is the Red Sox bullpen are the same clowns that have taken the mound for three years now. Aside from Kimbrel — who has had his share of struggles lately — the rest of the Red Sox bullpen are spineless head-cases who can’t handle high leverage situations against upper echelon competition.

What haunted former Red Sox manager John Farrell is now becoming the same nightmare for current manager Alex Cora. Any one of the relievers can get guys out, but when the game is on the line, they implode. Whether it’s the inability to throw strikes or the inability to keep the ball in the yard, the guys in the bullpen provide zero confidence for Cora and Red Sox fans.

This weekend against New York has been am embarrassment for Boston’s bullpen. It started with Heath Hembree‘s double to pinch-hitting Neil Walker Tuesday night in the seventh inning. Walker was batting under .200 for the season heading into the game. Hembree follows that up with walks to Gleyber Torres and Brett Gardner, leaving Joe Kelly with a bases loaded mess.

The poor outing by Hembree comes three days after his meltdown against the Rangers, where he allowed a single to Delino DeShields and a double to Shin-Soo Choo with nobody out. Fortunately, Hembree got a ground out before he was hooked for Kelly, who struck the next two batters out to end the inning without any damage.

But the Yankees aren’t the Rangers. And Kelly didn’t have the control in New York that he did in Texas. It happens. Kelly still owns a 2.30 ERA and is daily effective in his setup man role.

However, before we deem him as rock-solid, let’s not forget his struggles in the second half of last season. Even though Kelly is off to a great 2018, he had similar success in 2017 before he tailed off last season.

Some of the blame can be put on Cora for choosing Hembree to relieve a tie game in the seventh inning. However, in May rookie managers need to experiment with their bullpen to figure out who can be trusted. Although this is Cora’s first year managing the Red Sox, he’ll quickly find out Hembree, who now owns a 4.24 ERA, can’t be trusted in a tie game in the seventh inning or later. Even Farrell figured that one out pretty quickly.

But last night’s affair against the Yankees was an absolute dumpster fire that was ignited by gasoline as the inning wore on.

Oh, Matty B…how you continue to disappoint when the Red Sox need you most.

After the Red Sox got a two-run second deck rocket from Hanley Ramirez to take a 6-5 lead, ol’ friend Matt Barnes took the mound to solidify the eighth.

Carson Smith — who has improved since his early season struggles — was already used to finish the seventh. Smith holds a 4.09 ERA.

Kelly had pitched an inning and a third the previous night, making him unavailable.

It was up to Barnes to capture the eighth for Boston, but he was as ineffective as Hembree was the previous night. To make the sting feel worse, Walker started the rally with a double to begin the inning. Back to back nights, the mediocre lefty burns the Red Sox with a double. He may not hit doubles in consecutive games the rest of the year, but of course he picks this series to flex his muscles at the plate.

After a groundout by Miguel Andujar, Barnes walks Torres. Cora had seen enough. Thanks for playing, Barnes.

Actually, thanks for nothing.

Kimbrel is summoned to protect the lead with one out and two on in the eighth — which is unsuccessful territory for him. The game-tying run is 90 feet away. From the moment Kimbrel entered the game he didn’t look right. His stuff didn’t look as electric as usual, and he was nibbling the corners to Gardner until he found himself in a 3-0 hole. Kimbrel managed to battle back to a full count, only to watch a fastball whacked into the outfield for a go-ahead triple. The Yankees took the lead 7-6.

But Kimbrel wasn’t done imploding. Clearly rattled and shocked by Gardner’s triple, Kimbrel then served a fastball up on a platter for a center field bomb by Aaron Judge. Mookie Betts barely even moved once the home run sailed over his head. Judge’s HR made it 9-6, which sealed the deal for the Yankees with star closer Aroldis Chapman closing out the ninth.

Kimbrel now has two blown saves and a loss in a 16 days, all of which consisted of home runs. Last season, Kimbrel didn’t allow his second home run of 2017 until July 3. Needless to say, the panic meter is rising with Kimbrel.

For those clamoring that Tyler Thornburg will step in and be a high leverage machine when he returns from his rehab stint in Pawtucket, let’s pump the brakes. A relief pitcher for the Brewers isn’t the same task as being a relief pitcher for the Red Sox. In fact, an NL reliever isn’t even the same as being an AL reliever, just ask Addison Reed. Not to mention, Thornburg is coming off a major arm injury.

While Thornburg is primed to make an impact for the Red Sox, he can’t be the only solution moving forward. The Red Sox must acquire a high leverage pitcher who can be counted on in the seventh or eighth. If they don’t, this series may become the status quo for this Red Sox bullpen against elite competition.

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Kimbrel and Kelly will be counted on to rekindle last year’s success. But beyond them, do we really trust the rest of the clowns in the Red Sox bullpen to protect a one run lead against the Yankees?