BOSTON — Alex Cora didn’t even last until the first pitch of his first game of his first postseason as Red Sox manager before his carefully laid bullpen plans were upended by an MRI Friday afternoon.
Knuckleballing righthander Steven Wright, who missed about half the season with left knee issues as he continued to recover from May 2017 surgery, experienced a recurrence of those issues and was unavailable during the Red Sox’s win against the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS.
On Saturday, Boston removed Wright, 34, from its playoff roster — rendering him ineligible to pitch until the World Series — and replaced him with righthanded reliever Heath Hembree.
“He was throwing the ball well. You prepare for this and had your plans and the way you’re going to use him,” Cora said. “All of a sudden, Game 1, he wasn’t available. You have to improvise out there. I’m glad we got 27 outs. But it seemed like the game [Friday] was perfect for him, coming in in the seventh and give us three or six outs. Maybe nine, you never know.
“Very disappointed. I know he’s down. It [stinks] for him, but we have to move on.”
Wright’s absence — amid larger uncertainty about the Red Sox’s late-inning relief options — had a snowball effect on Boston’s pitching plans. With a 1.52 ERA in 16 relief appearances, Wright figured to be a critical piece of the October bridge to closer Craig Kimbrel. Instead, Cora used five relievers to get the final 11 outs Friday. Among them: Rick Porcello, who threw 15 pitches in the eighth inning.
Porcello is still scheduled to start Game 3 Monday at Yankee Stadium, but Cora left the door open for that to change.
“[Porcello] feels great. Let’s see how the game goes [Saturday],” Cora said. “He’s still in line to start Game 3. But I don’t know. We’ll try to win [Saturday], and if we have to use him, we’ll use him.”
If Porcello had to pitch in relief again in Game 2, Game 4 starter Nathan Eovaldi would move up to Game 3, Cora added.
For Wright, the injury comes at a particularly bad time. He has pitched in parts of six major-league seasons — and was an All-Star in 2016 — but has never pitched in the playoffs.
Wright said the MRI showed there is “definitely something going on as far as loose bodies and there might be something else” with his left [landing] knee, but he had to see another doctor for clarification. Normal stiffness advanced to pain in recent days, which is why he spoke up and had it checked out.
“Lost a lot of sleep last night playing the ‘what if’ question,” Wright said. “There’s nothing we could have done different because we were ultra-conservative the second time going through the rehab process and come back. They monitored everything I did. From pitches thrown to playing catch to workload, running. I mean, everything was monitored to make sure that we were staying on a clean line to where nothing was spiking.”
Relegated to cheerleader, Wright can relate to Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez, starters available out of the bullpen. Wright said the biggest change for Rodriguez — a 25-year-old lefthander with five career relief appearances — is on the mental side, staying locked in and ready to enter the game on several moments’ notice.
And then there is the option of just sucking it up at this time of year.
“You do it once, you figure it out. After that, you kind of know what to expect,” Wright said. “We know as pitchers when it comes to the playoffs, roles are kind of obsolete. It doesn’t matter what your role is.”