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Tomase: Robles making legitimate case to be Red Sox closer

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The 2015 Red Sox memorably sported t-shirts declaring, "He's the Ace," for a rotation that in fact featured zero of them.

The 2022 Red Sox should find that silk screener and alter one word, because "He's the Closer" tees fit this bullpen.

We're a week into the season and we still have no idea who's getting the ball in the ninth inning. One day, it's Garrett Whitlock (along with the 6th, 7th, and 8th). The next it's Jake Diekman, not that he gives two bleeps. In a perfect world it would be All-Star Matt Barnes, but he's still working his way back from last year's struggles in a setup role.

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On Wednesday in Detroit, it appeared manager Alex Cora wanted to ride rookie Kutter Crawford to the finish line, but he ran into trouble in relief of Austin Davis, who himself had stepped in a big pile of fudge.

When Diekman forced in a run by hitting Austin Meadows with a full count … something … ("What was that?!?!" incredulous broadcaster Dennis Eckersley asked of the wayward offspeed pitch), Cora summoned the reliever you get the sneaking suspicion he trusts the most on a day-to-day basis: Hansel Robles.

And just as he did on opening day in New York, when he blitzed the top of the order to force extra innings, the burly right-hander delivered. He turned a game that looked to be crashing towards a heart attack into a nice nap, escaping Diekman's jam in the eighth and then delivering a perfect ninth in a 9-7 victory.

 

Say hello to your new closer?

It certainly looks that way, partly by process of elimination, and partly because Robles has legitimately earned it. Name a better Red Sox reliever, including playoffs, since the start of last September. Whitlock clearly possesses the best arm in the pen, but Cora likes him as a multi-inning weapon who might only be available every four days. With a future in the rotation and no shortage of piggybacking candidates with which to pair him, expect Whitlock to remain stretched out.

If we answer the question based strictly on results, Robles might get the nod anyway. He didn't allow a run over 14 outings last September before faltering in the playoffs, where he blew Game 3 vs. the Rays and then lost Game 1 to the Astros. For all of Whitlock's greatness, September was his worst month (4.35 ERA) and then he blew Game 4 of the ALCS vs. the Astros by serving up Jose Altuve's game-tying homer leading off the eighth.

Robles may not be perfect for the role because he walks a batter every other inning and walks a tightrope, but the Red Sox are in no position to demand perfection. And Robles possesses traits that make him a good fit for the end of the game, even if the Red Sox didn't sign him until March 19 and visa issues kept him out of camp practically until April.

For one, he's experienced. He saved 23 games for the Angels in 2019 while limiting his walks. He also saved four games for the Red Sox down the stretch when every victory was crucial, including Games 160 and 161 in Washington, when a single loss could've put the Blue Jays in the playoffs.

Then there's stuff. As Cora might say, his fastball plays. Robles threw six four-seamers on Wednesday and the Tigers only put one of them in play, a lineout by Jeimer Candelario in the ninth. Robles attacks with a fastball-slider combo that he began featuring in Boston after last year's trade deadline, largely shelving an inconsistent changeup.

His outings aren't always pretty, thanks to deep counts and walks, but judged purely on results, he finds a way. Cora clearly trusts him, which is how he ended up on the mound in the ninth inning of the opener after just two spring appearances. And his performance on Wednesday, stanching the bleeding when the game appeared poised to spin away, should earn him even more points with the manager.

Is he a godsend like Koji Uehara? No. Is he as good as Barnes at his best? Not even close. But for this Red Sox team and this Red Sox bullpen someone ought to give him the t-shirt, because he sure looks like the closer.