Matt Barnes

Cora and Dombrowski's confidence in relievers has been rewarded

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Cora and Dombrowski's confidence in relievers has been rewarded

One of the biggest criticisms of the Red Sox this season has been their bullpen.

The pen finished ninth in Major League Baseball in ERA (3.74), but was nineteenth after the All-Star break (4.32). It had 12 blown saves in the second half, most in the AL and second to only the Diamondbacks (16) for most in the majors during that span.

President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski was criticized heavily for prioritizing second base (Ian Kinsler), starting pitching (Nathan Eovaldi), and a right-handed power bat (Steve Pearce) at the trade deadline over a bullpen that seemed to be in desperate need of attention. 

Fans and analysts sympathized with manager Alex Cora as he tried to piece together the late innings like a puzzle with pieces that didn't quite fit. 

But all the while, as fans and media cried the sky was falling, Dombrowski and Cora remained confident. “We think realistically our bullpen is pretty good." Dombrowski said after the trade deadline, "The improvements can come from within.”

And Cora did what he's done so well as season -- not overreacting and staying grounded in reality. 

"You look around the league in September, there were some great bullpens that became bad . . . It's the nature of 162 games," Cora said prior to the ALDS against the Yankees. "We're going to the same guys, and it seemed like some of them hit the wall. Hopefully, we've got the lead and we can give the ball to the next guy and the next guy, and then we'll give it to Kimbrel and we go from there."

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And that's exactly what they've done. 

But what exactly allowed Cora and Dombrowski to stay so confident despite the bullpen's monumental struggles? Well, like Dombrowski said, they're pretty good.

The World Series roster has five true relievers: Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree, Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel. (Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez are starters turned lefty specialists.) Each of Boston's relievers had their struggles during the season, but they all have filthy stuff when they're on.

MATT BARNES: 6-4, 3.65 ERA, 96 K, 61 2/3 IP
The bad: Barnes' ERA in August and September was 9.64 and 5.06.
The good: In May, his ERA was 2.13 and in July it was 1.46.

Barnes was Boston's most reliable reliever this season, and a hip injury contributed to his late struggles. He features a 97-plus mph fastball and a mid-80s curve -- a devastating velocity differential. Barnes has Cora's absolute trust right now -- he's pitched anywhere from the fourth to the eighth innings thus far in the playoffs. He's allowed just one run in 7 1/3 playoff innings.

RYAN BRASIER: 2-0, 1.60 ERA, 29 K, 33 2/3 IP
The bad: Nothing. Brasier has been good all year. It just took time for him to gain enough of Cora's trust to be used in high-leverage situations.
The good: August. He allowed one run in 12 innings.

Brasier has been an incredible find for Boston this season. The 31 year-old rookie worked his way into being a key late-inning reliever. He's not afraid to challenge hitters with his high-90s cheese, and hitters haven't had a bit of luck hitting him. He's allowed just one run in 7 2/3 postseason innings pitched.

HEATH HEMBREE: 4-1, 4.20 ERA, 76 K, 60 IP
The bad: Everything expect June, July, and his one March appearance. He didn't have an ERA under 4.50 in any of the other months.
The good: June, July, and his one March appearance. He allowed five runs in 22 1/3 innings in those games.

Hembree was bad for large stretches of time this season, but he was dominant at others. His mid-90s fastball is complimented well by his wipeout slider. The inconsistantly is the reason he's hasn't pitched in a high-leverage situation, but he's yet to allow a run in 3 2/3 playoff innings. 

JOE KELLY: 4-2, 4.39 ERA, 68 K, 65 2/3 IP
The bad: When it's been bad, it's been really bad. His ERA was over eight in June, July, and September.
The good: When it's been good, it's been really good. Practically unhittable. April/May/August -- 38 1/3 innings, four runs.

When Kelly is on, it looks like a video game. He throws a triple-digit fastball and sinker. He toys with hitters using his changeup, slider, and curve, all of which he'll throw in any count. In the playoffs, he surrended just one run in 6 1/3 innings pitched. On the pitch below, you can see it take a left turn about halfway to the plate.

CRAIG KIMBREL: 5-1, 2.74 ERA, 42 SV, 96 K, 62 1/3 IP
The terrible: The playoffs. Still, Kimbrel and his 6.14 ERA somehow found a way not to blow a single lead.
The bad: Post All-Star break, his ERA was 4.57.
The good: Pre All-Star break, his ERA was 1.77.

It's easy to forget that Kimbrel was third in MLB in saves. It's also easy to forget that he is one of the best closers of all time. (He was the fastest closer in history to 300 saves.) His upper 90s cheese with hair (as Dennis Eckersley woud say) and crippling knuckle-curve are both strikeout pitches when he's on. And it appears Eric Gagne helped him stop tipping pitches, and he may, fingers crossed, be back. He looked dominant last night in a perfect ninth last night with two strikeous.

THE ROVER
Cora introduced a new wrinkle to his bullpen in the playoffs, something he's calling the "rover". This refers to starting pitchers being brought in late in games to bridge the gap between relievers and Kimbrel. So far, Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi have been used twice, and Chris Sale has been used one. The "rovers" have totaled five innings in the playoffs, all scoreless. 

A major key to Boston's ability to weave through their reliever's struggles and keep winning despite them was the fortunate timing of guys hitting their strides. Kimbrel, Kelly, and Barnes dominated early. Hembree, Kimbrel, and Barnes shined in the summer. Brasier and Kelly held down the fort late.

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Cora and Dombrowski's confidence and sticktoitiveness with this group has paid off as they've all slipped into a zone at the right time. Between Barnes, Brasier, Hembree, Kelly, and the rovers, the bullpen ERA this postseason has been a sparkling 0.90. Kimbrel's had his struggles, but seems to have found his rhythm. Eduardo Rodriguez has been working his way out of the doghouse since not hustling to cover first in Game 2 of the ALDS, but came in to get lefty Cody Bellinger in Game 1. 

Boston's biggest question mark coming in to the playoffs has become one of its greatest strengths. Credit the relievers for putting in the work to overcome their stuggles, and credit the Sox for sticking with them.

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Matt Barnes still isn't fond of Manny Machado

Matt Barnes still isn't fond of Manny Machado

Matt Barnes' thoughts on Manny Machado haven't changed since the star shortstop caused a stir vs the Red Sox a year ago as a member of the Orioles.

Machado's controversial slide into Dustin Pedroia's knee caused tensions to boil over between him and the Red Sox. Two days after the incident, Barnes retaliated by throwing at Machado and earned a four-game suspension in the process.

As the Red Sox prepare to take on Machado and the Dodgers in the World Series, Barnes notes Boston hasn't forgotten about the slide that injured its captain. 

"You're talking about a play in which Pedey still hasn't played since then, really," Barnes said per The Eagle-Tribune. "When you take out a captain, a leader of a team, that's not going to sit well with anybody. It kind of is what it is. You move on. I don't see anything happening, I really don't, but it doesn't mean that we've forgotten about it."

Machado found himself at the center of the same kind of drama in this year's NLCS vs the Brewers. First after a questionable slide in Game 3, and then after kicking Jesus Aguilar running through first base in Game 4. Barnes wasn't exactly shocked to see Machado involved in this kind of controversy again.

"Honestly I'm not surprised about that. It just kind of seems like it's a trend," Barnes said. "But our job is to go win a World Series. Everything aside, that's it. I think the sweetest revenge would be to win a World Series and celebrate with them watching."

As for whether Barnes thinks the rest of the league agrees with Christian Yelich and Travis Shaw, who called Machado a dirty player, the Red Sox reliever replied, "Yeah... maybe."

Clearly, there's still no love lost between Machado and the Sox. We'll have to wait and see if that results in any sort of fireworks during the series. But one thing is for sure, what transpired in 2017 is still on the Red Sox' mind.

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Red Sox bullpen was told about 'doubters'

Red Sox bullpen was told about 'doubters'

BOSTON — The Red Sox are in the 2018 World Series in large part because their bullpen has stepped up in a way that appeared unlikely. Not impossible, but unlikely.

Matt Barnes has allowed one earned run in 6 1/3 innings on one hit, a home run. Ryan Brasier has no earned runs in seven innings. Joe Kelly’s allowed one earned run in 5 1/3 innings.

"I think everybody understood how good we were," Barnes said during the ALCS champagne celebration. "We knew what we brought to the table. There were times where we definitely slumped throughout the season, particularly later in the season, but we were ready for it. We got guys in there with electric stuff, we got guys with experience in the World Series."

They’re not successful because of the doubt that existed. But to some degree, the Sox relievers may have channeled the criticism of a group that had one of the 10 highest walk rates in the majors. 

“We had our moments before these playoff started,” pitching coach Dana LeVangie said. “And I brought up some of the doubters, I put it in their mind and I challenged them: ‘There’s some that believe we’re not going to win this because of the doubters.’ 

“I let ‘em know that we won 108 games with them, that’s hard to do. And there’s no reason why we can’t win 11 more with the same group. They just have to perform to their capabilities. Not do anymore.”

The Sox didn’t add to their ‘pen at the deadline, a gamble that so far has not hurt them. Their shakiest regular reliever in the postseason has been Craig Kimbrel, the pitcher who was supposed to be the most stable. His lack of command on his curveball (and some pitch tipping, although the Astros really were just confident he wasn't going to throw his curveball for a strike) never derailed a game for the Sox, only came close — and he looked great to close out Game 5 of the ALCS.

“I mean, we’re very confident in who we have,” Kimbrel said. “Everybody stepped up, pitched good at the right time.”

On the inside, the line is almost always the same: they believe in each other, and they always believed. 

Sox relievers have a 3.62 ERA this postseason in 37 1/3 innings. They’ve struck out 35, walked 25 and allowed five home runs. (The Dodgers ‘pen has been the best of all: 1.30 ERA, 51 strikeouts, 13 walks, three home runs in 41 2/3 innings.)

The walks were high for the Sox in the second half, they’re high now. The Sox don’t keep the ball out of play as much as the Dodgers do. But to this point, there’s been only success.

Of 21 inherited runners for the Sox, only three have scored — and all three were in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Yankees. They’ve stranded all 14 inherited runners in the eight games since then. (The Dodgers, meanwhile, have allowed three of 16 to score.)

“For me personally, no,” LeVangie said when asked if there’s been any surprise. "We’ve done some recent clean-up with some of our guys. A little bit of mechanics stuff, a little bit of maybe hiding your pitch mix from runners on second base, being a little more discrete with some of our guys. I felt like that’s made an improvement. 

"But to be honest with you, no I’m not [surprised]. These guys have sort of gotten their feet wet the last couple years and had success. It’s just a matter of time before that ever took place."

Still, even Sox manager Alex Cora expressed some doubt at points. Back in late July, for example, when asked if the Sox needed outside help

“That’s a good question. It’s a tough question,” Cora said. “I do feel there’s a few guys in that clubhouse that we have to fix. We have to get them back to where they’re supposed to be, and we’ll be fine.”

They have been more than fine in the face of doubt, with one series to go.

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