BOSTON -- A huge division lead is a strange bird to navigate, rookie skipper or otherwise. Alex Cora's bullpen management seemed caught in between on Monday night.
There are two basic forces at play for a manager in any game, be it in April or August: play to win that contest, or play for the future.
In the Sox’ position as the best team in baseball, the future has naturally started to garner attention, both in terms of player rest as well a new wrinkle tied to the calendar: information for the playoff roster. (We’re mainly talking about the pitching staff.)
That’s why Drew Pomeranz last week, on Wednesday, was left out to dry in a winnable game in Philadelphia, while Matt Barnes and Tyler Thornburg were held out because of workload concerns. The Sox lost that day, but there were understandable goals achieved.
On Monday night with Terry Francona across the way, Cora’s balancing fell short. Not because the Sox lost, but because the moves he made didn’t really fit either goal.
Warning: Nitty gritty details follow. Monday’s 5-4 loss to the Indians is ultimately a blip on the radar. The Sox' first consecutive losses since July were overdue. Cora’s still a top Manager of the Year candidate.
Everything ties back to a two-run home run Rick Porcello allowed to No. 9 hitter Greg Allen in the seventh inning, on Porcello’s 100th pitch. That shot broke a 3-3 tie and scored what proved the decisive runs for Cleveland.
“Not trying to take anything away from him but, I think even I could’ve hit that one pretty hard,” Porcello said. “It was not a good pitch, and it came at the worst possible time.”
There was a reliever, Barnes, warm in the ‘pen at the time of the homer. But before we get to Barnes, let’s start here: How was either the future or the present helped by leaving Porcello in?
He does not need the work. Arguably, the opposite. The righty, a quietly strong presence all year, has thrown the 15th-most pitches in the majors this season. From the beginning of 2015 through the present, he ranks fifth in regular-season pitches thrown.
In short, his workload has been huge.
Before the game, Cora was asked about Chris Sale’s health. The manager spoke of the importance of keeping guys fresh generally.
“We’ll make sure he’s okay,” Cora said. “And this is not only for Chris, but for the whole pitching staff. We want them to be trending up in September. I don’t want them to be trending down. Obviously September 1 is a huge day for everybody here [when rosters expand and help arrives].
"I don’t want them to go mid-September and the stuff is trending down. It should be the other way around.”
Porcello had already allowed two home runs Monday night. He’s allowed more long balls overall lately: 12 in his last 9 starts, after surrendering 10 in his first 17.
The reason for the dingers is unclear. But, at the least, a little extra rest couldn’t hurt.
“I can’t tell you in particular why there are more home runs being hit off me now than in the past,” said Porcello, who led the majors in homers allowed last year. “I think definitely part of it is missed location. That’s the first one you look at. Give guys the opportunity to put the barrel to the ball, usually you’re pitching in the middle of the zone. That’s the biggest factor.
“You have to continue to make adjustments. There are so many things guys have now as far as iPads in the dugout, scouting reports, percentages on pitches thrown, what you like to throw.”
We can break down Porcello’s adjustments another time. After the game, Cora’s explanation for leaving Porcello in was simple.
“We thought the matchup was good,” Cora said. “Man at first, and with the stuff he was throwing, we felt comfortable with it. He just hung a changeup and we paid the price."
Allen had already lined out twice off Porcello, one time with an exit velocity of 96 mph. But either way, letting a pitcher go a third time through the order is almost always playing with fire.
Now, it's notable that the Red Sox have had more success facing hitters a third time this year than any other team, with the lowest opponents’ average and slugging percentage entering Monday. That could be luck, that could be great pitching, or both. But past success does not eliminate present risk.
Barnes is the best reliever the Sox have behind Craig Kimbrel. Barnes was the fresh arm, and definitely the better choice to get the Sox out of the inning with a tie.
If winning was what mattered most.
Cora appeared to assume that Allen likely would only reach via a single or walk, not an extra-base hit. The next batter after Allen was Francisco Lindor, an MVP candidate and Cleveland's leadoff man.
“If [Allen] gets on, single, walk, whatever, Barnesy was in the game for Francisco because of the fastball up, breaking ball [combination], and obviously he faced him three times already,” Cora said. “So that was that.”
But let's say Allen didn't homer. A double could have put the Indians ahead as well. And at that point, what would the logic be in having Barnes warmed up? To keep the deficit from growing?
That would have made more sense than not using Barnes at all, which is what happened. Porcello gave up the homer, stayed in for Lindor, got out of the inning, and Barnes never pitched.
However, Barnes continued to warm as the Sox batted in the bottom of the seventh, joined by Thornburg. The idea, it seemed, was to use Barnes in the top of the eighth if the Sox took the lead or tied the score.
Warming Barnes and Thornburg, the double-barrel action with a deficit, suggested Cora really wanted to win Monday's game. Odd, though: Neither Barnes nor Thornburg could pitch in Philadelphia on Wednesday, and now they can both warm while trailing? If that’s how strongly Cora felt, Barnes should’ve had the seventh.
The future can't be what was driving Cora's thought process, because then he wouldn't have warmed up both Thornburg and Barnes that way with three more games remaining between these teams in as many days. The Sox are in a stretch where they play 10 straight games without an off-day. Barnes hasn't been short of work recently. He threw 22 pitches on Sunday against the Rays and 15 against them Friday.
Information wasn't the motivating factor, either. If it were, Barnes never warms. Thornburg is given the seventh-inning jam in relief of Porcello.
The Sox know what they have in Barnes: An improved, late-inning force. Thornburg, though, is still working his way back from a long injury recovery. Using Thornburg in a jam in a 3-3 game in the seventh could have been a worthwhile test.
Instead, Barnes and Thornburg will be more limited the rest of the series. Their usage (and non-usage) was not tailored to either the present or the future. Neither was the choice to let Porcello finish off the seventh.
But hey, at least Pomeranz threw a 1-2-3 ninth.