BOSTON — The Red Sox bullpen began the year with some big arms that were ultimately unproven. Guys like Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly and Heath Hembree.
Lefty Robby Scott had an excellent debut in 2016, but there wasn’t some sort of guarantee he would repeat that performance, or come close. He wasn’t even a lock to make the roster out of spring training.
In Friday’s 5-3 win over the Tigers, Sox starter Brian Johnson went 4 1/3 innings. He limited the damage to three earned runs, and the bullpen — Hembree, Kelly, Barnes and Craig Kimbrel — kept it right there. Jackie Bradley Jr.’s eighth-inning home run, a huge blast, would not have been so shiny if Detroit kept scoring off the Sox’ middle relievers.
The Sox bullpen ERA was down to 3.11 after Friday’s game, the fifth-best mark in the majors. All year, the unit’s been impressively strong despite the absence of Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg.
Is it time to consider the relievers who were unproven commodities to begin this season now proven? Maybe that time has already passed. Maybe the volatility of bullpens means we should hold our horses.
But at some point, Kelly should cease to be regarded as a converted reliever learning the job and looked at as reliable and at least somewhat learned.
Barnes and Hembree both had excellent stretches in 2016, have they now reached the next level?
This is no longer the early season. The small sample-size argument remains kind of valid, only because relievers don’t have a huge body of work generally.
Scott didn’t pitch on Friday. But at some point the conversation shifts with him too, from the indy ball feel-good story to simply, this is a dominant big league lefty reliever.
Kelly, Barnes and Kimbrel went 7-8-9 to finish the game, and each one of them struck out two. Barnes allowed one hit. The Sox offense showed more life than it has lately, but it’s been one of the worst in the majors in June.
The bullpen, time and again, has gotten it done. That may be a surprise, but it shouldn’t perpetually be a surprise. At some point, they’re simply good.