The Red Sox finally appear pointed towards October after sweeping the Orioles. With two games vs. the fading Mets and six against the indifferent O's and Nationals to close the season, it might not even matter what they do against the Yankees next weekend.
That's the good news. But looming over a potential postseason run is a question no team wants to ask this late in September: Who's got the ninth inning?
Since All-Star closer Matt Barnes hit his annual August swoon before missing nearly three weeks with COVID, the Red Sox have mixed and matched without paying a serious price. Barnes leads the team in saves with 24, but only one has come since the trade deadline on July 30. In his place, the Red Sox have seen nine pitchers record saves, including 11 by right-hander Adam Ottavino and even three by converted starter Garrett Richards.
Manager Alex Cora has been in scramble mode since the COVID outbreak sidelined relievers Josh Taylor, Hirokazu Sawamura, Martin Perez, and Barnes, among others. They're all back, but just when it appeared Cora finally fielded a full complement of arms with the return of left-hander Darwinzon Hernandez from a strained oblique, on Sunday key right-hander Garrett Whitlock departed with a pectoral injury, the severity of which remains unknown.
And so that leads to the uncomfortable issue of who's going to be recording the final outs in October?
"We've got stuff back there," Cora said. "That's the way. People talk about the ninth inning, but today the sixth and seventh were big, too. So we'll mix and match and keep doing it that way."
Needless to say, this is not ideal. For four months, the ninth inning belonged to Barnes and he excelled, making his first All-Star team and striking out nearly 14 batters per nine innings. Then came his August funk, which included a brutal stretch of three losses in four days, and Cora was forced to adjust on the fly.
Barnes recovered from a bad August to dominate October as recently as 2018, but he's up against the clock. He returned on Friday with a scoreless eighth inning in a 7-1 win over the Orioles, but he wasn't sharp, allowing a hit and a walk and striking out two.
"I didn't throw as well as I would've liked, but hey, zeroes are zeroes," Barnes said. "I mean, there's steps to this thing, right? There's bullpens in which you can't simulate game action. Then you make a couple of rehab appearances and that's kind of the next step after a bullpen. But there's no way to simulate pitching in a big league game except just doing it. You've got 35,000 here and a pennant race. The adrenaline starts kicking up. And so I kind of had to slow it down a little bit."
Failing a return to form by Barnes in the final two weeks, Cora will be forced to deploy his relievers on a matchup-by-matchup basis in October. In the last 10 days alone, Ottavino has pitched in the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth. Last week, Whitlock appeared in back-to-back games for the first time all season (and promptly allowed a walkoff homer). Richards has made three multi-inning appearances this month and on Sunday saved an 8-6 victory with a perfect ninth. While Taylor is most effective left-on-left, Cora will feature Hernandez vs. righties, too, and he owns four scoreless outings since returning on Sept. 10.
Even Hansel Robles, maligned after being acquired at the trade deadline, has gotten in on the fun with eight straight scoreless appearances, including the eighth inning on Sunday.
"He's been really good for us," Cora said. "We have put him in tough situations. He's done the job."
The same can improbably be said of most of the bullpen. Since Sept. 1, Red Sox relievers have posted a 3.45 ERA, good for fourth in the American League. The tough part will be making the all-hands-on-deck approach work in October. Even in 2018, when starters Nathan Eovaldi, David Price, and Rick Porcello threw key relief innings, the Red Sox knew they could hand the ninth to Craig Kimbrel.
Of course, he ended up heart-attacking his way through the playoffs, and when it came time to close out the World Series vs. the Dodgers, Cora summoned left-hander Chris Sale.
Maybe he'll be able to make it work next month, too. This is, after all, a weird season for contending bullpens. Thirteen pitchers have recorded saves for the Rays, with team leader Diego Castillo (14) now a member of the Mariners after being shipped out at the deadline. The White Sox, conversely, feature a pair of All-Star closers in Liam Hendriks and Kimbrel, while the Yankees have had to contend with the mystifying struggles of All-Star Aroldis Chapman.
Still, as we wonder just how long the Red Sox can actually last this October, uncertainty in the ninth inning does not work in their favor.