By Matt McCarthy, 985TheSportsHub.com
Alex Cora has spent all of September looking for answers in his bullpen.
He’s only found one answer: if he relies on any of his setup options in October, the Red Sox are doomed for failure.
That’s not the answer he was looking for.
Tuesday night’s latest bullpen meltdown, this time at the hands of the Yankees in the Bronx, once again proved that Cora has been saddled with a group of relievers incapable of delivering in the postseason. Both Ryan Brasier and Brandon Workman, the most reliable arms of late, struggled mightily. Workman walked two men before Brasier gave up a towering home run to Neil Walker.
Spin the wheel of gutless bums.
Cora has no choice: he cannot use any of his traditional bullpen options in October. He will have to look elsewhere.
The Red Sox have no other options at this point but to take a page out of the 2017 Astros book by relying on starting pitching options in relief. It’s the only possible way to save this bullpen.
There are no guarantees it will work, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Cora, Houston’s bench coach last year, and Astros Manager A.J. Hinch will be the first to tell you that they did not plan on relying heavily on starting pitchers in relief roles in their run to the World Series. That move was made out of necessity when Ken Giles and the rest of the Astros bullpen blew up on baseball’s biggest stage.
Starters Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers saved Houston by thriving in their unexpected bullpen roles. McCullers picked up a save in relief of Morton in Game 7 of the ALCS with four shutout innings against the Yankees. Morton returned the favor in Game 7 of the World Series, tossing four innings of one-run ball in relief of McCullers to close out the Fall Classic.
If the Red Sox are going to be successful in October, they will need to find their version of McCullers and Morton.
Knuckleballer Steven Wright appears to be first in line. Cora has starting using him in high leverage situations, and as adventurous as some of those outings have been, Wright has gotten the job done. He has thrown seven scoreless innings in September, but has allowed 11 men to reach base.
Counting on a knuckleballer in the bullpen is like playing with fire: there’s a chance you’ll get burned. But if you’re relying on the likes of Joe Kelly, that’s like playing with a flamethrower at a gas station.
Nathan Eovaldi has proven to be the ultimate feast-or-famine pitcher. He has held the Yankees scoreless for 14 innings in his two starts against them in a Red Sox uniform, but struggled for much of August, including two 10-hit outings against Baltimore and Cleveland. His career 4.19 ERA speaks to what he is: an inconsistent and ultimately average big league pitcher.
But like McCullers, who went into last year’s playoffs with a 4.25 ERA, Eovaldi’s stuff is tantalizing and could play well in a relief role.
Brian Johnson struggled in the bullpen this year before moving back into the starting rotation in June, but with a lack of reliable left-handed relief options, he could represent the best chance to get lefties out.
Johnson’s stats won’t wow anyone (4.24 ERA), but he can’t be any worse than Drew Pomeranz (6.17 ERA) or Bobby Poyner (16 big league appearances).
It’s far from a sure bet that the likes of Wright, Eovaldi, or Johnson will deliver in October. If they were truly reliable options, there would be legitimate discussion of them starting.
But this season has proven that there are no viable and trustworthy options in the bullpen. The starters are the best shot the Red Sox have.