Red Sox bullpen stepping up at perfect time

October 12th, 2018

BOSTON -- The fretting from the ravenous fanbase turned to full-blown panic in the middle innings in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.

How would the Red Sox possibly get through October with a bullpen that had lacked consistency late in the regular season and lacked star power beyond closer ?

:: ALCS schedule and results ::

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the AL Championship Series, which starts tonight at Fenway Park, with the Red Sox hosting the Astros.

That much-maligned bullpen stepped up and helped stifle the Yankees, particularly in those final two games in New York.

A near meltdown from the usually dominant Kimbrel in the ninth inning of the clinching Game 4 at Yankee Stadium notwithstanding, manager Alex Cora's relievers did exactly what they needed to do to vault the team to the ALCS.

When asked Friday what his bullpen showed him in the ALDS, Cora quipped, "Showed me, or showed you guys?"

The truth is, according to Cora, that his group did what he expected.

Gear up for the ALCS

"I was always comfortable with the bullpen," Cora said. "I knew we were going to have guys coming in in situations that they didn't pitch in [during] the regular season. I knew that in September we had a plan, and we were staying away from certain guys in certain situations. I knew that [Matt] Barnes was hurt, and he's one of the best relievers in the big leagues. And I knew coming into October we were going to be fine."

Though knuckleballer (left knee injury) is again out of the mix for this series, Cora has found a setup crew he can count on. Barnes bounced back from his late-season, right hip injury just as Cora hoped he would and got big outs in Game 1 and again in Game 4.

shook off the nerves he had while allowing two of Chris Sale's inherited runners to score in Game 1, and he was tremendous the two other times he pitched in the series.

Joe Kelly and -- who struggled in the final few weeks of the season -- pitched well when called on against the Yankees.

In fact, Barnes, Brasier, Kelly and Hembree combined to allow no runs in 9 2/3 innings and allowed no extra-base hits while holding opponents to a .067 average (2-for-30) in the series.

You'd never know it by listening to Boston talk shows, but the Red Sox finished fourth in the American League in bullpen ERA during the season, trailing only the Astros, Athletics and Yankees.

"I think the confidence has been the same," said Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez. "They've been solid, I feel like, for most of the season. They had a rough patch for a little bit. And I think that first half, the Division Series, they obviously got a lot of heat for the first game. But if you look back, I mean, the last two games, they were solid. And they got it done for us."

There is a different element in the postseason also that makes bullpens better, and that's the mixing in of starting pitchers. got two huge outs for Cora in Game 1. Sale got three even bigger ones in Game 4.

Sale looking to settle score against Astros

Those two pitchers could make more cameos in the bullpen going forward, and don't be surprised if is asked to help as a reliever at some point also.

Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has taken his share of the heat for not upgrading the bullpen prior to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. But it didn't haunt his team in the ALDS, and the hope is that will again be the case against the mighty Astros, who are the defending World Series champs and won 103 games during the regular season.

"Well, yeah, we were able to slip guys in. I think our bullpen has done a fine job during the postseason," Dombrowski said. "We figured we would use some starters at times, you can do that with some off-time. And also, we had to even do a little bit more adjusting because we felt that we would have Steven Wright and he was a loss for us, but our guys were able to juggle that. Alex did a good job handling the 'pen to get us ready to use the guys, and Hembree stepped in and pitched well for us."

This isn't to say the bullpen is going to be perfect in the ALCS. Much like New York, Houston is loaded with proven hitters.

"This is the playoffs. It's going to be a grind," Martinez said. "Look at the lineup they were facing. It's not an easy lineup. It only gets harder from here. So it's one of those things where, I think, everybody likes to point fingers and say, like, 'Oh, this is this and that.' But people have to realize that these are the best players in the world right now. And it's all funneling down to the best teams, the best lineups, the best pitchers, the best bullpens. And it's a battle. It's not easy."

Though it might have been easy to write off Boston's bullpen at times this season, it should be noted that 26 other bullpen crews are on vacation.

The bridge to Kimbrel still has some work to do.

"We didn't have a doubt in our mind about those guys," Kimbrel said. "We knew what they got. Everybody goes through stretches; everybody wants to jump on. But they're pitching well at the right time, and hopefully they can keep it up."