Forget about Chris Sale, Red Sox bullpen is becoming the real problem


BOSTON - If every Red Sox deficiency this season were to spring from the Green Monster like leaks in a dike, the team would run out of fingers before it jabbed the hole marked "bullpen."

Chris Sale is only throwing 88! Nathan Eovaldi needs surgery! Mookie Betts is hitting .200! Jackie Bradley's not hitting at all! Ramon Laureano keeps throwing everyone out! Rick Porcello can't throw a strike! Etc. …

With such high-profile targets to bemoan, we understandably lost track of the setup corps, which also escaped notice by virtue of the Red Sox trailing for most of their first 10 games. Relievers can't protect leads that never existed.

The last week has retrained our focus, though, and not in a good way.

It started in Yankee Stadium on Wednesday with two of the supposed reliables -- setup man Brandon Workman and co-closer Ryan Brasier -- combining to spit up Brett Gardner's go-ahead grand slam. It continued at Tropicana Field with another stalwart, veteran right-hander Matt Barnes, surrendering a pair of eighth-inning home runs in games the Red Sox eventually won.

And it revealed itself in particularly ugly fashion in the first game of a doubleheader Tuesday vs. the Tigers, when the trio of Heath Hembree, Colten Brewer, and Bobby Poyner allowed seven hits and five runs in just 2.2 innings, turning a 3-3 game into a 7-4 loss.

It continued a miserable pattern. The quartet of Brasier, Barnes, Workman, and Marcus Walden is 6-1 with a 2.38 ERA in 41.2 innings. The rest of the bullpen has been a mess, however, going 1-2 with a 7.47 ERA in 47 innings, which includes a mop-up frame from infielder Eduardo Nunez, but ignores a pair of three-inning spot starts from Hector Velazquez.

"We need to get better," acknowledged manager Alex Cora. "We recognize a few guys that they're going to pitch in high-leverage situations. Today's different with the doubleheader. We've got some guys throwing the ball well, there are others that need to make adjustments and get better."

The bulk of that failure belongs to Hembree, Brewer, and Tyler Thornburg, at least two of whom were expected to pitch meaningful innings this season, and a third -- Brewer -- considered one of the most intriguing players in camp.

Brewer's problem is strikes. He has walked seven, including a leadoff free pass to Niko Goodrum that kick-started a three-run seventh. He then served up the kill shot, a two-run double halfway up the Monster by Josh Harrison with the Red Sox optimistically playing the infield in. His command Is MIA.

"Very frustrating," Brewer said. "We've got one job to do and that's to get outs with the game on the line, and that's something obviously I have to get better at.

"It is early in the year, but [command] could definitely be better than it has been, and that's something I'm going to work on, for sure."

For Hembree, the issue is secondary offerings. The home run he allowed to Ronny Rodriguez came on a curveball, continuing a trend that has seen a pitcher nicknamed "Heater" get beaten by his second and third pitches despite owning a 95 mph fastball.

"We've been talking about that, and that's been going on, I think, since the last part of the season last year," Cora said. "His fastball plays at this level. We believe that, and if you look at the numbers and all that, his fastball where it has to go, he gets swings and misses and weak contact.

"He hung a breaking ball to Rodriguez right there. The slider hasn't been as consistent as it was last year or the early part of the season, but we're still working. Velocity is OK compared to last year – 94, 95 – but we need him to go with that fastball to some of the spots and obviously with breaking balls, we need to make sure we expand the plate."

Cora praised Thornburg on Tuesday morning for pitching better than his numbers, and he responded with the only effective relief outing of the afternoon, striking out two over 1.1 perfect innings.

The Red Sox will need more of that as they attempt to overcome a mediocre 9-14 start that leaves them only 2.5 games ahead of the Marlins for the worst record in baseball.

That's a far cry from where we expected them to be nearly a month into the defense of their World Series title, but then again, the bullpen is just one of many leaks in need of plugging.

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