We have encountered our first legitimate concern of the 2021 Red Sox season, and it is the bullpen.
Manager Alex Cora needn't worry about the ninth inning, where closer Matt Barnes has been electric. Every fourth or fifth day, he can summon Garrett Whitlock for two shutout innings. If length or mop-up duty is required, he boasts multiple options.
The problem occurs between the sixth and eighth, where the Red Sox feel one arm short while navigating the gap between a succession of five-inning starts and Barnes in the ninth.
That problem revealed itself acutely in Thursday's 7-3 loss to the Mariners. The Red Sox only allowed one hit through nine innings, but primary setup man Adam Ottavino walked two and threw away a sacrifice bunt to tie the game in the eighth, and then lefty Darwinzon Hernandez couldn't throw strikes before serving up the clinching three-run homer to Mitch Haniger in the 10th.
We've noted that even during their nine-game winning streak, the Red Sox possessed little margin for error. They showed on Thursday how a winnable game can flip when their bullpen falters.
"We've been saying all along that somebody has to step up," Cora said. "Bottom line is, we had a lead going into the eighth and we ended up losing the game. We feel like we have capable guys, but people have to step up and do the job."
The biggest issue is the eighth. In Matt Andriese and Hirokazu Sawamura, Cora has found reliable arms for the sixth and seventh. If he needs someone a little sooner or to polish off an easy victory, changeup-flipping Philips Valdez can answer the call.
Then comes the eighth. Cora would like to hand that frame to the trio of Ottavino, Hernandez, and left-hander Josh Taylor, but they've been three of his worst pitchers. The problem is command. They've combined for 19 walks in 20.1 innings (not to mention a 7.52 ERA), and free passes were certainly the problem on Thursday.
The Red Sox became the first team in nearly 30 years to allow at least seven runs on three or fewer hits. Ottavino walked two in the eighth and Hernandez two more in the 10th and three of them scored.
"I think for how good we pitched today, we didn't pitch well," Cora said. "We walked too many guys, there was a lot of traffic at the end, and we weren't able to put them away."
Cora has a couple of options. The likeliest path in the short term is to ride it out and give Ottavino an opportunity to regain his fastball command and pitch to his track record. He can similarly hope Taylor and Hernández regain the form that made them weapons in the second half of 2019.
The problem with this approach is that the two young left-handers aren't exactly proven commodities. The 28-year-old Taylor went undrafted, posted relatively pedestrian numbers in the minors, and then delivered about 45 good innings out of nowhere two years ago. He wouldn't be the first reliever to disappear as quickly as he arrived.
As for Hernández, walks have always plagued him, though his overpowering arsenal means he'll be given every chance to succeed.
"It feels great to know that (Cora) trusts me in those type of situations," he said. "I just have to go out there and prove him right. I have to continue to be the pitcher that I know I am, continue to be aggressive attacking the zone."
The second option is to integrate new arms into the eighth, with Sawamura a possibility, given his closing experience in Japan. Unfortunately, his command hasn't been stellar either, with five walks and a hit batter in 8.2 innings.
The best pure stuff of the setup group probably belongs to Whitlock, but the Red Sox are taking things slowly, given that he's coming off of Tommy John surgery and had never pitched above Double A.
The Red Sox view Whitlock as a starting candidate in 2022, and they don't seem inclined to jeopardize that process, which is why he has made appearances on three, four, and five day's rest. They're basically keeping him on a starter's schedule, and the results have been outstanding -- nine innings, three hits, 11 strikeouts, zero walks.
Taking an eighth-inning role requires more flexibility, durability, and resiliency, however, and even if Whitlock's stuff warrants it, his future isn't worth risking.
Internally, the Red Sox can wait for right-hander Ryan Brasier, but he's still recovering from a calf strain and there's no timetable for his return. They could also try right-hander Tanner Houck, but they love him as a starter and need to keep their options open if Garrett Richards continues to struggle or the rotation is inevitably beset by injury. It would be asking a lot of any of their other young arms to start throwing high-leverage innings, since prospects like right-hander Connor Seabold haven't even thrown a pitch in the big leagues yet.
That leaves Cora in a difficult spot with an unsettling solution, at least in the short term -- maintain the status quo, and hope for the best.