By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Senior Staff Writer
Look, it is hard to hit the panic button on a team that has already won 88 games on August 21st, but to say that there weren’t some sweaty palms among Red Sox fans after their hometown team dropped their second straight game against the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night by the score of 6-3, would be the baseball equivalent of whistling past the graveyard.
For the second straight night the Sox pitching staff failed to measure up to the Tribe’s – whose bullpen throws shade all over Alex Cora’s shaky bunch leading up to closer Craig Kimbrel – and with Chris Sale still very much a question mark, the edge in pitching to that point, was very much leaning in the direction of former Sox skipper Terry Francona.
However, what happened in the final two games of the series split epitomized what makes this record-setting Red Sox club so much fun to watch.
As we have seen all season, this version of the boys of summer can bash with the best of them. The addition of the better than advertised J.D. Martinez has made all the difference to a lineup that was vanilla at best last season. Add to the big bopper that the Sox were missing since David Ortiz retired following the 2016 season, Cora’s laidback disposition and the aggressive approach he has preached to his players since he replaced the robotic John Farrell last fall, and you have an offense that has pounded opposing pitching.
Cora’s crew leads Major League Baseball in runs scored (701, 49 more than the second place New York Yankees), batting average (.269, six points higher than the second place Chicago Cubs), doubles (291, a whopping 32 more than the Oakland A’s and Atlanta Braves), slugging percentage (.461, nine points over the Yankees) and OPS (.799, 18 points more than the alleged Bronx Bombers).
While the Sox struggled with the long ball last summer – they were 27th in all of baseball with only 168 dingers – they currently sit 5th in MLB with 172 home runs. Nevertheless, regardless of how overpowering the offense has been – they have the two MVP candidates who have the two highest batting averages in baseball with Mookie Betts (.340) and Martinez (.333) – it is the pitching that gives the Fenway Faithful pause when it comes to their team’s chances in the playoffs.
There is perhaps no sport on the planet that loves statistics more than Major League Baseball, and the stats will tell you that any concern Sox fans may have about this pitching staff is somewhat ill-founded. Even so, as the old axiom goes, there are three types of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics.
As a group, the Sox staff has the second-best ERA in all of baseball (3.47), trailing only the defending World Series Champion Houston Astros (3.13), who have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to those who toe the rubber around the league. Their bullpen, as well, rates right up there statistically, sporting a 3.30 ERA, which is good for 5th in MLB.
It’s when you get to the late innings is where the Sox warts are exposed.
Manager of the Year shoo-in Cora’s staff maintains their 5th position with a 3.07 ERA in the 7th inning, yet, it is in the 8th and 9th frames where they begin to stumble and fall. In the 8th inning of games this year, Sox pitchers rank 18th in all of baseball with a 3.91 ERA, and they have given up 56 earned runs, more than any playoff contender other than the Philadelphia Phillies, who have surrendered 64.
And despite the prevailing notion that the Sox possess one of the best closers in the game in Kimbrel, their 3.27 ERA in the 9th inning is good for only 9th in Major League Baseball.
For as encouraging the unpredictable David Price’s start was in Thursday’s matinee blowout of Tito’s team was, the lack of a late-inning arm that can reliably get the ball to Kimbrel is extremely concerning. Despite Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski’s protests that his pitching staff – as constituted – is good enough to win a World Series, most who watch the team on a nightly basis know that the Boston bullpen doesn’t pass the sniff test when it comes to getting to their closer.
There is exactly one week remaining before the waiver wire trading deadline ends next Friday. If Dombrowski doesn’t add a reliable arm to his bullpen, this record-setting regular season Red Sox club could go the way of the of the 2001 Seattle Mariners team that won 117 games that lost in five games to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship series.
And no one wants that, right?