Just over a month ago, Alex Cora found himself so desperate for reliable arms in front of closer Matt Barnes that he allowed Phillips Valdez to face the heart of the potent Blue Jays order in the eighth inning of a 7-5 game.
Valdez responded by inducing a double play grounder from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but his stay in the late innings proved short-lived. The changeup-chucking right-hander allowed runs in five of his next six appearances before being optioned to Triple-A Worcester in early June.
It's hard to believe just a few weeks later that Valdez was ever required in anything other than a mop-up role, because the once-maligned Red Sox bullpen has kept the team afloat during a brutal June.
How does a team deliver a 17-10 record during a month when it has recorded a negative run differential? With a borderline unhittable bullpen, that's how.
Red Sox starters have failed to reach the fifth inning 10 times this month after doing so just seven times in their first 57 games. That has put an incredible strain on an overworked 'pen, but the relief corps has delivered.
Taking out appearances from position players Christian Arroyo and Marwin Gonzalez, as well as the sacrificial offering that was Ryan Weber during an 11-run bloodbath vs. the Jays, Red Sox relievers have posted a 2.94 ERA this month while going 12-1. Meanwhile, in that span, Nathan Eovaldi (3.00) is the only starter with an ERA below 5.40. The relievers have been carrying the load.
"I think for the vast majority of the season, the bullpen has been really, really solid," Barnes said. "We've got some guys on there with a bunch of experience. We've got some young guys with really electric stuff, but it doesn't really come as a surprise, honestly. Kind of saw it in spring training.
"Obviously things don't always pan out the way that you kind of expect them to or want them to, but I think this has been awesome. Guys are feeding off of each other, guys are doing their thing, wanting the ball, competing, and going out there and doing their job in big situations. It's been awesome, it really has."
After much tinkering, Cora has settled upon a winning a formula. Barnes remains the linchpin, and he recorded his 18th save in Wednesday's 7-6 victory over the Royals by striking out the side. Barnes owns the pen's only loss of the month, and that came on a strange walk-off wild pitch vs. the Rays, but he's been nails since the opener, going 3-2 with a 2.65 ERA and over 15 strikeouts per nine innings.
Cora's problem had been finding a way to get to him, but each setup arm has suddenly clicked into place like a domino.
The eighth inning generally brings either right-hander Adam Ottavino or left-hander Josh Taylor. The former has overcome some early fastball command issues to rediscover the form that made him so valuable with both the Rockies and Yankees. He owns a 2.31 ERA and three saves this month. He's got a 2.73 ERA overall.
The latter might be Cora's most reliable weapon. Though he actually owns the worst ERA of any of the primary relievers (3.04), that statistic is wildly misleading. Taylor hasn't allowed a run since April, a period of 23 appearances that has seen him limit opponents to a .145 batting average and .420 OPS. Had Taylor delivered even an average April, he'd be an All-Star candidate.
"If people look at his numbers and they see what he's done since the end of April, he's been one of the best if not the best lefty in the big leagues," Cora said. "You can't deny that, numbers-wise. It's been, what, 20-something games getting lefties and righties out. Putting him in tough spots with two on and men on or facing a bunch of righties late in games."
Taylor is complemented by fellow lefty Darwinzon Hernandez (2-2, 2.84), who's a bit of a wild card thanks to an unsightly walk rate (7.8/9), but whose overpowering arsenal can be equally effective vs. lefties and righties.
Joining him in the sixth- and seventh-inning mix is right-hander Hirokazu Sawamura (4-0, 2.56), who possesses a power splitter that's unlike any other pitch in the game, often registering at over 95 mph. While Sawamura has had issues keeping the ball in the park, he's also 3-0 with a 1.56 ERA in his previous 17 outings dating to early May.
The final primary piece of the puzzle is right-hander Garrett Whitlock (3-1, 1.42), a rule 5 steal coming off Tommy John surgery who has been used judiciously. Whitlock has only made 22 appearances -- just two more than Valdez -- but 16 of them have covered multiple innings and he has yet to pitch on consecutive days. Cora has instead used him a couple of times a week, on average, and he hasn't allowed an earned run since May 19.
"In a perfect scenario -- and there's no perfect scenarios in this game, the game will dictate what we do -- it's for him to go multiple innings when he pitches," Cora said. "That way, we probably get two outings a week, two or more. You start adding it up and he's giving you actually more innings that way than going one inning here or one inning there, at the same time trying to protect him."
Add it all together and you're looking at the group that's as responsible as any for the Red Sox maintaining their division-leading pace during a month when their starters have largely turtled. The relievers will need help from the rotation moving forward, but night after night after night, they've answered the call.