For all that’s been said and written about how well Alex Cora has been at getting the most out of his young players, his bullpen management can get overlooked.
It’s fair to say Chaim Bloom hasn’t overlooked it.
The Red Sox once again entered the season without any star relievers and no clear plan in the ‘pen, where last year’s All-Star closer Matt Barnes is now a middle reliever and the only sure-fire weapon at Cora’s disposal is sophomore superstar Garrett Whitlock, who was supposed to be used as a swingman.
And yet the bullpen played the hero on Tuesday night, as Sox’ relievers shut down one of the game’s premier offenses in the Toronto Blue Jays and preserved a 2-1 win at Fenway Park.
The Sox’ bullpen was supposed to be a weakness this year, but “everyone is working really hard to change that perception,” said Hansel Robles, who threw 1-2/3 perfect innings to extend his scoreless streak to 19 consecutive regular season appearances.
Cora admitted he had no clear plan of what to do with this group entering the season. But after Sox relievers tossed 4-1/3 scoreless innings on Tuesday, the bullpen now has a sparkling 3.17 ERA.
“We had an idea, but we’re still learning,” Cora said on how he’s navigating the late innings with a bullpen that includes four new guys, three of which were signed during training. “It’s not easy. I’ve been saying it all along, there are certain guys that have to step up.”
If you would’ve drawn it up during the off-season, Whitlock looks like the ace in the hole with Barnes as the defacto closer and perhaps Ryan Brasier and Darwinzon Hernandez as the set-up guys.
But Barnes and Brasier showed decreased velocity, and Hernandez was sent to the minors to get stretched out in a multi-inning role.
Bloom was able to snag Robles on a minor league deal late in spring, then spent small to bring in a pair of left-handers in Matt Strahm ($3 million) and Jake Deikman ($7 million over two years).
Diekman and Strahm have combined to post a 0.96 ERA with 13 strikeouts and just two walks in 11 appearances thus far, while Robles hasn’t allowed a run in a regular season game since last August, a span of 18-2/3 innings in which he’s held hitters to just six hits in 65 at-bats.
“We got him straightened up, mechanics-wise, and his stuff is really good,” Cora said of Robles.
Robles had a 4.91 ERA with the Twins before coming to the Red Sox in an at-the-buzzer trade at the July 31 deadline. He’s been one of their most reliable relievers since.
“He likes it here too,” Cora said. “He’s a guy that from afar, you see him and you’re like, ‘that stuff should play at the big league level.’ And so far it’s playing here in Boston.”
Said Robles, “There is a different taste to it (in Boston). There’s a different adrenaline when you go out there.”
Cora might have some reliable weapons after all.
Whitlock is a cheat code in the late innings. He’s allowed just one run on four hits in 9-2/3 inning this year. Tuesday, he collected his first career one-inning save when he was called on in the ninth to protect a one-run lead. He made a nice play on defense, too, sliding into the bag on a groundball to first base and tearing off a chunk of skin on his knee in the process.
“My dad said, ‘it’s too far from your heart to kill you so rub some dirt on it and you’ll be fine,’” Whitlock said
He’s primarily been a multi-inning reliever when Cora feels like he has a chance to steal a win, but Cora went for the jugular against the top-tier Blue Jays on Tuesday night.
It sounded like Cora wanted to send a message. The Jays are considered the class of the American League this year.
“We were very aggressive,” Cora said. “It was an aggressive day too. Sometimes those kids in the clubhouse, they deserve that. After everything that went on (with the COVID-19 outbreak), we got Kevin Plawecki watching the game on TV, Christian Vazquez watching the game on TV. There are certain days that, you know what, the human element takes over.
“It seemed like a playoff game. And I managed it like a playoff game. It was a very heavy day for everybody, a lot of stuff going on, and I went for the win.”
Cora’s brilliance as a manager shines through in many areas, but usually most in his ability to read the human element as well as anyone.
He’s somehow getting it done with Strahm, Diekman, Robles and Whitlock as his most reliable arms, but still hopes to utilize Barnes at some point this year.
“Hopefully Barnsey can get to where we want him to get and take over,” he said. “Wednesday is a big day for the other guys. We have a lead, we have to use them because we were very aggressive today.
“There are guys we trust. Their stuff should be there. It’s about executing. Hopefully we can get more guys that start throwing the ball well. I do believe they’re getting close. They’re right there. If they do that, then it’s a lot easier.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism