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Tomase: Red Sox's old-school pitching approach is paying dividends

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Michael Wacha

Alex Cora has solved the problem of a shaky bullpen: Don't give the ball to his shaky bullpen.

While you were sleeping Monday night, Michael Wacha continued a trend that is making the Red Sox a welcome outlier among teams sabermetrically rattled by the idea of letting a pitcher turn over a lineup three times.

With three outs and the prospect of facing Shohei Ohtani in the ninth inning standing between the Red Sox and a 1-0 shutout of the Angels, Cora chose not to go left-on-left or pick his best reliever to close out a win with wild card implications.

He instead let Wacha finish what he started, and the veteran right-hander delivered, inducing the reigning AL home run champ to ground out and delivering the Red Sox their fourth straight win out west, their fifth straight overall, and their 18th in their last 26 games. They're now a game over .500 and a game and a half up on the Angels for the third wild card spot.

Wacha's shutout also gave the Red Sox their third complete game of the season. No other team has more than one, and 22 clubs don't have any.

If it seems like the Red Sox are suddenly letting their starters go deeper than anyone else, it's because they are.

Red Sox starters averaged a shade over four innings in April following a truncated spring training. Cora and pitching coach Dave Bush recognized the increased risk of injury after CBA negotiations were resolved in March, and they babied the rotation accordingly.

 

That led to some ugly games early on, especially when it became clear that the bullpen lacked stuff, depth, and talent. While the starters pitched to a 3.40 ERA, Cora simply didn't have enough arms to reach the finish line, and the Red Sox opened the season with a 10-19 record that included five blown saves.

Since beginning their turnaround in Atlanta on May 11, however, Red Sox starters have consistently provided not only length, but quality. Throw out a bullpen game from Austin Davis and a spot start from Josh Winckowski, and the five regular members of the rotation -- Nathan Eovaldi, Nick Pivetta, Garrett Whitlock, Wacha, and Rich Hill -- are averaging nearly six innings a start with a 3.55 ERA.

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"I know we get criticized sometimes with our pitching program early on in the season, taking care of pitchers and taking them out early," Cora told reporters, including Ian Browne of MLB.com. "Like we tell them, the reason we do that is to be ready when it really matters."
 
It apparently matters now. Red Sox starters have allowed only one run in their last 39.2 innings, culminating in Wacha's three-hit gem. That's an ERA of 0.23. In that stretch, opponents are hitting just .148.

This has allowed Cora to manage very differently. Because he still lacks a closer, the Red Sox never quite know where they're going to turn in the late innings. Cora's most reliable options at the moment are righty John Schreiber and lefty Matt Strahm, though that could easily change. Righty Tanner Houck is available for multiple innings, but the combination of a revitalized offense and starters going deeper means he has only pitched in one close game in the last two weeks.

In any event, it's not just Wacha. Pivetta has won his last five starts with a 1.54 ERA while pitching at least seven innings three times. His best start was a complete-game two-hitter vs. the Astros.
Eovaldi has thrown at least six innings in six of his last eight starts, with his high-water mark a complete-game win over the Orioles in the first game of a doubleheader that allowed Cora to take a rested bullpen into the nightcap in support of Winckowski.

The debuting right-hander allowed four runs in three innings, but six relievers combined to throw six shutout innings that gave the Red Sox a chance in a 4-2 loss.

The last week or so, meanwhile, has seen Whitlock reach a career-high six innings in back-to-back starts and Hill pitch into the seventh inning for the second time this season.

All of that length is proving contagious, and it's mitigating the biggest weakness on the team. It's also why, when Wacha walked the high-five line on Monday with his ERA down to 1.99, he sought out Eovaldi and Pivetta with a simple message, per MLB.com.

 

"I was just trying to be like you guys," he said.