BOSTON – The Red Sox relievers heard the narrative, and to a point understood it.
It went something like this: Despite winning a franchise-best 108 games, there was no way a bullpen that struggled as it did during the season’s second half would be able to handle the power hitters the Yankees possessed in the American League Division Series.
Then, after the Red Sox bullpen did just that, the relievers surely would get hammered in the ALCS against the relentless Astros.
After the group excelled in that five-game series, a new narrative took hold.
The Red Sox, after an 8-4 victory over the Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series, in which the bullpen again was solid, might just be there because of the unit and not despite it.
“They’ve done a good job shutting the door when we need them to shut the door,” Red Sox utilityman Brock Holt said Wednesday before Game 2 at Fenway Park. “That’s the reason why we’re in the position we’re at.”
The Boston bullpen had good numbers during the regular season, finishing with 3.74 ERA, fourth in the AL behind the Astros (3.03), Athletics (3.37) and Yankees (3.38). But in the second half Red Sox relievers posted a 4.32 ERA, which ranked them ninth in the AL in that stretch.
Ryan Brasier started the season with Triple-A Pawtucket and posted a 1.60 ERA in 34 games after his contract was purchased by the Red Sox on July 8. Brasier said the doubts expressed about the bullpen were justified.
“Everybody in here had confidence in what we had going in, which I think goes a long way,” Brasier said. “But obviously everyone knows we struggled as a bullpen down the stretch. But we were confident going into the playoffs with the guys we had, and I think it’s been showing.”
Going into Wednesday’s Game 2, righties Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree and Brasier had a 1.08 composite ERA this postseason, limiting the opposition to a .143 average. Going into the World Series, only three of 21 inherited runners had scored off the Red Sox bullpen this postseason, with all three in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Yankees.
That streak came to an end in Game 1 when Barnes allowed a runner he inherited from Chris Sale to score. Sale allowed three runs and five hits, while striking out seven, over four innings.
“We’re going out there trying to do our job, put up zeroes,” Barnes said. “Sale did a good job, offense put up runs, and when you have the starter doing his job and the offense putting up runs, it really makes our life easy.”
Adding to the group’s effectiveness this postseason has been the occasional relief work that Alex Cora has given to starters Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi. The latter, a former Yankee, got four big outs in Game 5 of the ALCS against the Astros and set down the Dodgers in order in the eighth inning of Game 1.
Eovaldi also has been the Red Sox's best starter in the playoffs, allowing one run in seven innings in ALDS Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, then allowing two runs over six innings of a victory in Game 3 at Houston.
“He’s going to start a game in the World Series, it’s either 3 or 4,” Cora said of Eovaldi before Game 2. “We’re all in today. If there’s a window we feel is a good matchup for him, we’ll use him and make adjustments. Same thing with Rick.”
The bullpen brought a postseason 3.40 ERA into Game 2, and it was that high largely because of the struggles of closer Craig Kimbrel, who allowed at least one run in each of his first four playoff appearances. But he seems to have righted himself, striking out four in two innings in his last two appearances.
“For him, he has to feel good about it,” Cora said. “His stuff was great [Tuesday night], too. So like I said after Game 5 in Houston, we were very comfortable with Craig Kimbrel and he's going to get the ball in close games.”