Red Sox

Can a bullpen as messy as the Red Sox’ make a deep run?

History says well, maybe.

Ryan Brasier finished off Boston's wins on Friday and Sunday over the Athletics. D. Ross Cameron/Associated Press

COMMENTARY

What’s the worst bullpen to ever contend? It feels time to ask now.

For one, it’s easier to research than, “What’s the worst third-quarter team to contend for a world championship?” Or, for that matter, to answer than “How do you fix the Red Sox bullpen?” or “Does baseball crack into pieces if four teams from the same division make the playoffs?”

All pertinent questions on Monday morning, as Boston’s return to .500 with a three-game sweep of Oakland immediately landed them in playoff position alongside the Yankees (39-15 and “truly great,” lauded Jon Heyman this weekend), Blue Jays (31-22), and Rays (31-23).

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Good job, good effort, American League. Being 27-27 is good for sixth place after the Angels, hosts for the Red Sox the next four days, sought to make the visitors feel at home by blowing leads in the eighth and ninth Sunday to lose their 11th straight.

“It really makes no sense. We got the right guys out there at the right time,” LA manager Joe Maddon told reporters in Philadelphia. “But we’ve got to finish these games off.”

Boston, for a few days, did with a little effort.

On Friday, after Nate Eovaldi left with a four-run lead following six scoreless innings, the Athletics cut the lead in half against Tyler Danish and Matt Strahm, before John Schreiber wriggled from the mess. Saturday was relatively painless, even if Tanner Houck in an eight-run game felt like overkill, but is there such a thing with this relief group?

“Just grinding and using everybody,” manager Alex Cora told reporters after Schreiber, Danish, and Ryan Brasier closed out a 1-9 Oakland homestand on Sunday. “We’ve still got holes, but … we feel very good about ourselves trying to win on a nightly basis.”

He was speaking roster-wide, of course, with Franchy Cordero knocking the big blow to give Rich Hill — who retired 16 in a row pitching into the seventh — the victory he deserved. (Credit also to Rafael Devers, whose opposite-field shot at a time when the oppo shot is disappearing only reinforces he’s an absurdly talented hitter.)

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The bullpen, however, remains the story of the season if only by circumstance. Their collective 3.89 ERA is 15th after 54 games, splat in the middle. As is using 14 pitchers so far to finish games, and having seven blow a save.

No team in baseball can match their meager eight successful saves, though. (The Angels and Rays have pulled even, each blowing 12 of their own, but with far more successes.) Despite only being .500, only four teams — the Dodgers, Mets, Astros, and Yankees — have won more games by at least three runs than Boston’s 19.

That’s 70 percent of those 27 wins. And means that only one, Cincinnati, has won fewer games decided by two runs or fewer than Boston’s eight. (Again, the Angels are tied with them.)

Maybe Matt Barnes’s shoulder drains and he returns to form. Maybe a starter fills the relief gap when Chris Sale returns, or Brayan Bello and Frank German form an answer. Or maybe, and this is the likeliest solution, the Red Sox can’t hit enough to save this season from mediocrity and forgettability.

Until then, we hope they’re an outlier. The 2019 Nationals got four postseason saves from Daniel Hudson, who said in the middle of said postseason, “I hate closing games. I hate closing.” Regardless, it became his job when Sean Doolittle went down injured and Washington reloaded its dreadful bullpen at the trade deadline. (Those Nats still finished with a 5.68 bullpen ERA, worst ever among playoff teams, never mind champions.)

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Tony La Russa didn’t name a closer until following a Game 7 Cardinals victory in the 2011 World Series, finally “settling” on Jason Motte, who’d saved 13 games in September and October and claimed the role that no less than four other pitchers had cycled through over the course of the season.

We could cite others, but those strike me as the standard in the closer era. And there’s two paths forward, with the latter the far easier.

A three wild-card, four-round playoff structure basically begs a mediocre team to come in and get hot in October. (What’s winning 100 games this season going to do, save you a playoff round?) Barnes, Bello, Whitlock, German, or whomever has months to figure their business out.

The Nationals’ route, however, is also intriguing because it’s basically the way the Red Sox have clawed back to .500. (Beyond, of course, the schedule going soft.) Their best everywhere else basically just dragging them there.

Devers has been a top-five hitter in the majors this season, and you could make a case to sneak Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez into the top 10. The starting pitching has been beyond anyone’s reasonable expectation: A 3.60 ERA that ranks eighth and a 1.14 WHIP that’s sixth, with Nick Pivetta and Eovaldi going at least six innings in 12 of their 22 starts.

It’s not unreasonable to think those names above can form enough of a Juan Soto-Anthony Rendon-Max Scherzer-Stephen Strasburg mix to limp even this motley bullpen crew to 88-odd wins. Of course, it then becomes a question of whether these Red Sox see fit to supplement as Washington did.

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We can save that for another day, though. On this one, they’re catching the Angels at a Biblically bad time. (Mike Trout’s in an 0 for 26 drought, for goodness sake.)

It really may be better to be lucky than good.

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