The Red Sox relief dominance continued Monday in 4-3 Patriots’ Day win over the Rays, an afternoon that closed the four-game series.
Unfortunately for Dave Dombrowski, 13 games do not prove Sox relievers are primed to be this good, or close to it, for the long term. The potential for excellence is much easier to see now — but still, hard to bank on.
There’s really only one certainty, one guy with a track record: Craig Kimbrel. And it was just a few outings ago where his control looked as shaky as it did in September.
No longer. The closer’s mechanics are finally in sync, and he struck out seven of the nine batters he faced in the three-game series with the Rays.
The last three days for Kimbrel were just an overwhelming display of dominance. He struck out the side Monday facing the top of the Rays order while throwing for a third consecutive day. He initially thought he’d be unavailable, but after taking treatment, let it fly.
“He’s probably in the best spot he’s been in from a delivery standpoint in the year-plus that he’s been here,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “If you see the work that he puts in after he pitches, he keeps himself in tremendous shape and I think on those days in which he is pitching the third day, it’s been when he’s been efficient, much like we saw today. Good command, good location, his curveball for strikes."
Kimbrel agreed he’s in the best spot of his Red Sox career.
“I think so. I think last year I was battling through a few things and I maybe got into some bad habits,” Kimbrel said. “Right now everything feels great. Hopefully I can keep it going."
Through the first 13 games of the season, the Sox ‘pen has allowed a .183 batting average, better than every team except the Dodgers (.167) and Yankees (.173).
The relief corps’ 1.84 ERA was fourth best, behind those two teams and the No. 3 White Sox.
Considering all the concern for Tyler Thornburg, who has yet to throw a pitch for the Sox; considering Carson Smith isn’t due back until June; these stats would have been difficult for anyone to confidently predict.
Sox manager John Farrell, however, said he wasn’t surprised by the bullpen's general success.
“No, because it's one that has good stuff,” Farrell said. “When you anchor it with a guy who is an elite closer in Craig, it allows those roles to emerge. As long as they execute there is a lot of big league stuff out there. There's power. There's the ability to match-up.
“Robby Scott has come in in some key moments and gotten some key outs. I'll tell you, it's a pretty strong vote of confidence to bring a kid like Ben Taylor into a spot like that knowing he's going to throw strikes and quality strikes. They're pitching well.”
Funny Farrell should mention Taylor. He was added to the big league roster for a second time for all of one day on Monday, and was used in traffic in the seventh inning to clean up a mess made by Robbie Ross Jr.
Matt Barnes was unavailable. But Heath Hembree, who handled the eighth inning well, was available. Should Taylor have been used over Hembree with runners on in the seventh? That’s an eyebrow-raising move — which moment was more crucial?
But guess what? It worked. One inherited runner scored against Taylor, cutting the Sox lead to 4-3. But Farrell’s pushing all the right buttons, and even if he’s pushed a wrong one here or there, it hasn’t mattered.
This isn’t primarily about a manager, though. It’s about a group of relievers who are pitching extremely well, with some good fortune mixed in.
Opponents have a .245 average on balls in play against the Sox, which is the fourth lowest mark in the majors. Presumably, a couple more balls will fall in some time soon.
But go beyond that. Just consider the inexperience at play here.
Who can say with that Matt Barnes will be the eighth-inning guy, the primary go-to reliever besides Kimbrel, from now until the end of the season?
Joe Kelly was good in long relief on Sunday. He, Barnes and Hembree all throw very hard. They can all be dominant. But consistency isn’t in their track record. A guy like Kelly hasn't even had time to establish a track record.
The roles were fluid to start the year, and both hiccups and role changes should be expected from here.
There's Kimbrel and there's everyone else, as long as Kimbrel doesn’t start yanking his curveball into the left-handed hitter’s batters box again.
Right now, everyone looks good. Outside of Kimbrel, frankly, everyone looks a little too good.