It's hard to imagine that any one decision dropped the Red Sox into last place. And yet for all that has gone wrong this season, consider how different the standings might look if the Sox had simply left Garrett Whitlock in the bullpen.
For all of the injuries to the starting staff and the lineup, for all of the misfires that left the club short at first base, right field, and the bullpen, for all of the monumental struggles within the division, the moment that might've undone all of it came in late April when the Red Sox turned their most dominant reliever into an unremarkable starter.
It's fitting that Whitlock's first start went so well -- four shutout innings, one hit, seven strikeouts vs. the Tampa Bay Rays -- and still ended in a 3-2 loss. Kevin Kiermaier walked off Hansel Robles with a two-run homer in the 10th because the Red Sox needed a Garrett Whitlock to pitch in relief of Garrett Whitlock.
They won't make that mistake again, at least not this year. Whitlock is back in the bullpen, and the results speak for themselves.
On Friday, he blew away the Yankees for two innings to earn a 3-2 win. In Sunday's finale, he struck out two, including Aaron Judge, during a perfect ninth to secure a 3-0 victory for the club's first real series victory vs. a division rival.
In both games, he brought the heat, attacking the Yankees with 97 mph two-seamers before deploying his slider and changeup. He looks like he was born to close.
Unfortunately, the Red Sox didn't see it that way in April. After signing a four-year, $18.75 million contract extension that heavily incentivized innings pitched, Whitlock shifted to the rotation. The team had always envisioned him as a starter, but took things slowly after swiping him from the Yankees in the 2021 Rule 5 draft. Coming off Tommy John surgery, he wasn't ready for a starter's workload, and Alex Cora masterfully managed him through that season, only pitching him on back-to-back days once all year.
That walk-off loss to Tampa in April dropped the Red Sox below .500, where they'd remain until early June. But the real impact of Whitlock's absence was felt the following series in Toronto, where Canada's vaccine mandates left right-hander Tanner Houck unavailable. The Red Sox blew one game when left-hander Jake Diekman served up the game-tying homer to George Springer with two outs in the ninth. They lost another when Tyler Danish served up a tie-breaking grand slam to Bo Bichette in the eighth.
In both cases, Whitlock's absence was glaring. It became even more so in the finale, when he allowed one unearned run in three innings of a 1-0 loss to All-Star Alex Manoah. The Red Sox blew two games late so Whitlock could make a three-inning start? What's the point?
Whitlock went 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA in nine starts before hurting his hip in June and missing more than a month. When he returned on July 15, he did so as a reliever. All he has done since is go 1-1 with a 1.53 ERA and three saves in 10 appearances. Take away one costly mistake against the Royals when he hung a changeup to Nick Pratto for a walk-off homer after recording eight straight outs, and he has barely been touched.
Overall, he's 2-1 with a 1.32 ERA in relief. It's fair to wonder how many of the team's 23 blown saves, second only to the Rays in the AL, might've been wins with Whitlock at the back of the bullpen. In the Sliding Doors version of the 2022 Red Sox, it might be the only question that matters.