Matt Barnes earned the save in his first appearance of the season but Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora isn’t ready to call him the closer.
Alex Cora played coy with his decision to name a new closer throughout spring training. We thought we had our answer Friday night when the Boston Red Sox rallied to take the lead in the ninth and Matt Barnes, the presumed favorite for the role, trotted out from the bullpen for the bottom of the inning.
Barnes certainly looked the part in his first opportunity to fill the closer void left by the free agent departure of Craig Kimbrel. The right-hander breezed through a clean inning, inducing a routine ground out from Mitch Haniger, freezing Domingo Santana with a high fastball for a called third strike, and getting Daniel Vogelbach to swing through a curveball to end the game.
Despite that Barnes was the first reliever to notch a save for the Red Sox this season, Cora isn’t committing to using him as a closer. The manager told reporters after the game that there is a plan for how he’ll utilize Barnes and the ideal time to call upon him won’t always be in a save situation.
"“He already knows what it’s all about,” Cora said, via NESN. “I talked to him about a month ago about how we’ll use him. Two-three-four in the ninth had a lot to do with it.”"
Without a “proven closer” lurking in the bullpen, Cora intends to take a new-school approach to utilizing his best reliever. It’s not exactly a closer-by-committee where Cora is mixing and matching based on match-ups. This is more about how to get the most out of Barnes.
The philosophy is simple. The most important outs aren’t always in the ninth inning. Cora isn’t willing to shoe horn his decision making by locking Barnes into a specific role.
Last night was the perfect example of when Barnes was needed in a save situation. Boston had trailed most of the game so there was no need to turn to Barnes until Mitch Moreland‘s three-run homer capped a stunning Red Sox rally in the top of the ninth. The bullpen needed to protect a one-run lead with the 2-3-4 hitters in the Mariners lineup coming up. Naturally, Cora sent his best reliever in to slam the door shut on the first victory of 2019.
There will be other scenarios where Barnes isn’t used in a save situation. If the Red Sox hold a three-run lead and the bottom of the opposing order is coming up, why waste Barnes? Cora has enough confidence in at least some of his other options to come through in that situation.
There will also be times when Barnes is called in earlier. If the heart of the order is coming up in the eighth inning, that may be when Barnes is needed. If the Red Sox need someone to halt a rally in the seventh, Barnes’ elite strikeout rate makes him sell suited to get them out of a jam. This may mean his work is done before we get to the ninth, requiring someone else to step into the closer seat that night. The alternative is risking that the lead will be lost while Barnes sits idle in the bullpen waiting for his turn. Cora doesn’t want to blow the game in a decisive moment knowing his best option in the bullpen was available.
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Cora never got the opportunity to explore this strategy in his first season at the helm of the Red Sox. He had Kimbrel to lock down the ninth. While he’s one of the all-time greatest closers, Kimbrel has a history of under-performing when called upon for a non-save situation. He needed that adrenaline rush that comes with closing out the final frame. There’s also the uncertainty of how Kimbrel would respond to a more creative approach with his usage. Even if it was what’s best for the team, Kimbrel may not have been thrilled with having his save opportunities limited ahead of his free agency.
The concept of using your best reliever at the most opportune moment is fine on paper yet Cora still needs to figure out who gets the save in those cases when he’s already burned through Barnes. Not everyone has the mental makeup to handle the responsibility of the closer role. We can’t be sure that Barnes does but he seems to be the safest bet among Boston’s options. Maybe Barnes gets the job done in the eighth against the most dangerous threats in the opposing lineup but does it matter if the next man up in the bullpen crumbles under the pressure of a save situation?
There may be some growing pains as the bullpen adjusts to fluid roles. A clear hierarchy may emerge later in the season as more relievers earn the manager’s trust but until then, the later inning will be nerve-wracking to watch.