It's time to find this Red Sox bullpen a closer.
The starters won't be available to bail anyone out until October, so the Red Sox must consider reinforcements for a relief unit that has carried the load for much of the season, but is already showing signs of wear.
Another viable arm would be nice. Someone who can take the ball in the ninth would be even better.
It's a retrograde solution in light of the plan manager Alex Cora has cultivated since last winter to use his best reliever -- usually Matt Barnes -- when the matchups demand, whether it's the seventh inning, eighth, or ninth. But the team's current personnel simply isn't equipped to sustain this approach.
On Wednesday night in Toronto, the bullpen suffered a slow-motion implosion that cost starter Rick Porcello a victory and increased the pressure on president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski to address what is becoming a glaring need.
Stalwarts Brandon Workman, Barnes, and Marcus Walden combined to allow one run apiece in the seventh, eighth, and ninth, erasing leads of 3-1 and 4-2 and forcing extra innings, where Heath Hembree surrendered yet another tying homer in the 12th before Michael Chavis did his thing and won it with a monster blast in the 13th.
The limitations to Cora's the-ninth-is-just-another-inning approach looked particularly stark when he handed the ball to Walden, a career minor leaguer who has been a revelation, to close out a one-run game. It's one thing for Walden to deliver big outs in fifth or sixth. It's another to do it in the ninth, and he couldn't.
While Cora has pushed the right matchup buttons with Barnes, in particular, it's time to stop pretending this tactic can last an entire season, especially with Ryan Brasier struggling. The Red Sox lack the bodies to mix and match their way through the last three innings, and they should start addressing their problems from back to front, as Wednesday illustrated.
Porcello delivered six outstanding innings, limiting the Jays to one run on just 80 pitches. He left with the Red Sox leading, 3-1.
Then the fun started. Perhaps stung by trying to wring another inning out of Porcello in his last start vs. the Rockies, Cora summoned Workman. Reliable despite lacking the overpowering stuff typical of a late-inning reliever, Workman could not throw his fastball for a strike, and his curveball barely found the top of the zone, either.
He recorded two quick outs and then loaded the bases before walking in a run. He escaped by inducing a grounder to second and muttering to himself in disgust as he left the mound.
On came Barnes for the eighth. The right-hander is asked to fill a role that exists for virtually no other reliever in baseball -- neutralize the heart of the opposing order, wherever, whenever. This time he drew the 2-3-4 hitters, and No. 3 took him deep, Justin Smoak ripping a solo homer that pulled the Jays within a run at 4-3.
On we moved to the ninth, where Walden was asked to record a legitimate save. He wilted, allowing a double, groundout, and game-tying two-run single that forced the squads to play for another hour and a half.
The Red Sox have now blown eight saves, although they technically improved to 19-1 when leading after eight innings.
The issue is how they can make this work all year, especially since so many of their relievers are flawed: Workman struggles to throw strikes and lacks an overpowering fastball to complement his big curveball; Brasier needs a pitch that he can throw soft and away to lefties; Walden can't afford to elevate a slider and is untested; Heath Hembree gives it up when he throws anything other than a fastball. Even Barnes is susceptible to the home run. The rest of the pen could be DFA'd tomorrow with no repercussions.
So, why a closer, or at least someone with closing experience, instead of simply another arm? Because that would allow Cora to mix and match all he wants in the sixth, seventh, and eighth without worrying about the final three outs.
Put another way: he could limit the instances when Workman attempts to close out the Rockies (he succeeded), or Walden tries to secure a one-run win on the road (he did not).
I know what you're thinking: Craig Kimbrel? If the Red Sox had any interest, they'd have signed him months ago. It's hard to imagine changing course now, or that Kimbrel would even be interested, since he's just a couple of weeks away from becoming a true free agent without draft pick compensation attached.
If Kimbrel's not an option, that's OK, because Impact relievers change teams every year. Last season alone, dynamite arms Ryan Pressly (Astros), Brad Hand (Indians), Zack Britton (Yankees) and the controversial Roberto Osuna (also Astros) were dealt.
Start picking through last-place rosters to see who might fit that bill this year, whether it's Royals setup man Jake Diekman, Giants closer Will Smith, or Nationals All-Star Sean Doolittle. All three are lefties, which wouldn't hurt Boston's mostly right-handed staff.
Is this an overreaction to one game? I don't think so. The Red Sox have been dancing on the precipice for a while now, and best to address the issue before they fall.
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