By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Senior Staff Writer
Anyone know what Mike Timlin is doing these days? You may chuckle, but getting to the Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel is no laughing matter headed into September with the division on the line.
After getting a not very authoritative endorsement from Red Sox manager John Farrell to become the team’s 8th inning guy – except on days when the wind blows out of the west, or if he had French fries for lunch – starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter-turned-setup man Clay Buchholz, entered his first game in his new role Tuesday night, and did what most expected him to do – he failed. With the game tied 3-3, Soft as Clay threw Evan Longoria a meatball middle-in, and the Tampa Bay Rays third baseman hit it so hard he interrupted satellite service along the entire east coast, on the way to a 4-3 win over Buchholz and the Sox.
Things got worse on Wednesday afternoon, when the Red Sox stormed back in the middle innings to take a 6-4 lead, after pretty much sleep-walking in the batter’s box against starter Drew Smyly the first couple time through the lineup. After Fernando Abad retired two in the 8th, but walked the bases juiced, Farrell chose not to ask his closer to get a four out save, and instead turned to the human blow torch, Junichi Tazawa.
And, of course, he served a flat fastball to Logan Forsythe, which he served into left field to tie the game; just as the lousy script that is the Sox bullpen story this season called for.
Farrell explained his way around not using his closer in that situation, just as he has explained away his poor management of his relievers all season. “After we got him an inning of work last night because he had not pitched in six days, was not going to go with a quick turnaround and look to get four outs from him,” said the former pitching coach who has no idea how to handle a bullpen.
First of all, the reason that Tazawa’s arm now resembles a wet noodle, is because the manager rode it early and too often for the last three seasons. Seemingly every night for the past three years, if the former lock-down, late-inning guy wasn’t pitching in a game, he was warming in the bullpen. Every arm has only so many bullets in it, and Farrell made sure that he fired every last one of Tazawa’s.
Secondly, closers are paid big money to close games, especially in late August in the middle of a pennant race. Kimbrel had pitched once in the last six days – granted it was the night before – so there should have been no issue with pitching him for four outs in a must-win game. The same guy who didn’t want to fatigue his closer had run Buchholz out three games in a row, and if it wasn’t for the light hitting Aaron Hill saving his bacon in the home half of the 8th, there was a very real possibility he would have to do it a fourth time if the game went extra innings, as he was the only arm he had left after his closer due to Brad Ziegler’s illness.
And as for Farrell’s handling of Ziegler, a former closer, it has been off the charts bad. Let me get this straight; the guy was good enough to close when he got here and Kimbrel was injured, but now you’ve got to get him out of the game if a lefty comes up? Granted lefties are hitting .290 against him this year, but he is a pitch to contact, ground ball pitcher, who held southpaws to .218 average in the previous three seasons. Once he gets over the Swahilian flu he has, he should be the 8th inning guy going forward, not the inexperienced Soft as Clay.
It is a fact that building a bullpen has never been a strength of president of baseball operations, Dave Dombrowski. It is the reason that some of the very good Detroit Tiger teams he assembled flamed out in the playoffs. He hasn’t done a very good job doing it this year; however, it seems his manager wouldn’t know how to use it, even if he did.
Farrell is fortunate that his team can hit – and hit good pitching, at that – and that they are capable of pulling his fat from the fire the way they did at Fenway on Wednesday. There wasn’t a fanny in the seats or anyone watching at home that wouldn’t have opted to take Timlin down from the legends’ suite and throw him into the game old and cold, rather than hand the game over to Tazawa with the bases loaded in the 8th inning against the Rays.
Not since 2003 – when the entire six state region of New England spent the winter mumbling, “Timlin in the 8th, Williamson in the 9th” – have the bullpen woes been so bad for a Sox team in contention.
Perhaps the addition of arms like Joe Kelly and Heath Hembree, who will join the team in Oakland for the series against the A’s due to the September 1st roster expansion, will lessen the load on the likes of Abad and Tazawa. Maybe Koji Uehara will return from the dead, and solve any issues with the 8th inning. And maybe my hair will miraculously begin to grow back so I can rock my ‘90’s mullet again, too.
Nevertheless, if anything can derail the chances of the Red Sox playing well into October, it will be the combination of the unsteady bullpen, and the inept guy, who is managing it.
Say it with me, John. “Ziegler in the 8th, Kimbrel in the 9th.” It’s really not that difficult.
Follow on Twitter @KevinMFlanagan. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.