Red Sox manager Alex Cora explains decision to remove Rick Porcello

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 21: Rick Porcello #22 of the Boston Red Sox delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning of the game on June 21, 2018 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 21: Rick Porcello #22 of the Boston Red Sox delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning of the game on June 21, 2018 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora explains why he turned to his bullpen despite that Rick Porcello had thrown seven scoreless innings.

Rick Porcello was dealing. The right-hander carved up the Minnesota Twins lineup, making the highest-scoring team in the majors appear helpless. The Boston Red Sox were cruising toward a victory and only a meltdown from their shaky bullpen could derail them. We’ve seen that story play out too many times this season, which is why it was a bit surprising that Porcello was lifted after tossing seven shutout innings.

Bullpen management is perhaps the most scrutinized aspect of a manager’s job. They don’t receive nearly enough credit when they pull the right strings yet they get ripped apart by their critics whenever they make a mistake.

Alex Cora faced this dilemma heading into the eighth inning Monday night in Minnesota. Put the game in the hands of a bullpen that has been a weak spot for this team or risk leaving his starter in too long?

Cora admitted after the game that he was tempted to leave Porcello in for the eighth inning but he resisted that urge based on the results from a similar situation last month.

"“We went through this once already, so I’m a quick learner,” Cora told reporters, per’s Christopher Smith."

He was referring to a game on May 17 against the Houston Astros when Porcello was sent back out for the eighth protecting a one-run lead. Porcello would end up surrendering a leadoff double followed by a home run to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Cora wasn’t about to make that mistake again.

Granted, there are plenty of other examples of a reliever blowing the lead when the starter should have been trusted to go deeper in a game they were dominating. Just ask Chris Sale.

The decision nearly backfired when Colten Brewer allowed a base hit and a walk to begin the eighth but he managed to escape the inning unscathed. Brewer was a questionable choice in that high-leverage spot based on his overall results this season but he got the job done and has now thrown eight scoreless innings in June.

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Ryan Brasier slammed the door shut with a clean ninth inning for his seventh save of the season. Cora’s explanation for turning to Brasier, despite his recent struggles, was that he was fresh after being away from the team on bereavement leave.

Brandon Workman and Marcus Walden had both pitched in each of the previous two games so it made sense to stay away from them. What about Matt Barnes? The team’s best reliever hasn’t pitched since June 15. He would typically handle the eighth or ninth in this situation. If Barnes was unavailable for undisclosed reasons, pulling Porcello after the seventh in favor of a depleted bullpen becomes a riskier choice.

There were also risks with leaving his starter in the game and factors beyond his decision backfiring a month ago may have led Cora to give Porcello the hook.

Porcello had thrown 94 pitches, a total he had equaled or surpassed in nine of his previous 10 starts. He threw 100+ pitches in each of his last two outings and his season-high is 114. He probably didn’t have enough in the tank to go the distance for a complete game shutout but one more inning would have left him with a reasonable pitch count.

Except that not every pitch has the same strain on a pitcher. Porcello had thrown 20 pitches in the seventh inning, including an eight-pitch at-bat by Miguel Sano resulting in a walk, as Cora pointed out. Most of those were high-stress pitches after Porcello allowed a one-out double with the Red Sox clinging to a one-run lead.

Porcello had to work hard to get out of that jam. It would be one thing if he had cruised through his final few frames but that seventh inning battle was physically and mentally draining.

Cora revealed that Porcello was “very honest” when he and pitching coach Dana LeVangie spoke with him after the seventh so we can surmise that the starter was on board with the decision. Porcello is a competitor who would want to finish what he started if he could.

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In a reverse of their fortunes from the game against Houston, Cora’s decision paid off for the Red Sox. The bullpen held the lead and Boston extended their winning streak to six. Does this mean Cora learned a lesson to trust his bullpen in these spots? Not necessarily. Each scenario has its own unique aspects that must be considered. Cora will store this win in his memory bank for future reference but it doesn’t have to be a blueprint that must be followed to protect every late lead simply because it worked out this time.