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The middle relief is stepping up

Flying in the face of expectations

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Let’s take a trip back in time going back, oh let’s say about a month. It was the middle of September, the division was all but officially wrapped up and eyes were set purely on the postseason ahead. It was easy to see how this team, en route to what was eventually a majors-leading 108 wins, could succeed in the postseason. It would be the same way they had all year. However, it was also seemingly becoming clear how things could take a turn for disaster and another early exit. The conversation in mid-September was almost exclusively around the potential failures of the bullpen, and I should be clear there was good reason for this. I’d probably argue it was a bit overblown, but the general idea of worrying about the unit was fair. Simply put, pretty much no one was looking good in the bullpen. In an era where postseason baseball shifts a disproportionate amount of importance on bullpens, the relievers all struggling at once was a bad omen. If the Red Sox were going to falter in October, it was going to be because of the bridge to Craig Kimbrel. And, frankly, to many it looked like they were going to falter.

Well, fast-forward to today and we are six games in to this Red Sox playoff run, Boston boasts a 4-2 record and the middle relief has been a massive part of the success. In fact, you could argue they have been the best and most consistent portion of this roster. Obviously, the offense and the rotation have each had big games, and you don’t win a playoff series without multiple contributors, but the middle relief has been there game in and game out. They’ve certainly been helped by some rotation members — Rick Porcello....hello — stepping up and performing in multiple roles, but the biggest names in middle relief have been great as well. In fact, other than the bookends of the bullpen (i.e. Kimbrel and Brandon Workman), they’ve been just about perfect.

Divisional Round - Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The leader of this group is Matt Barnes, who has spent the majority of the season being the second-best arm in this bullpen. He pitched at a near-elite level for the first four months of the year, and he looks like he’s back at that level right now. There’s always going to be some lapses of control for the righty, but he’s coming into big spots right now and not allowing damage. He pitched the first and last games of the Yankees series, recording three outs in each of them without allowing an earned run. In the ALCS, Barnes has been even more impressive, recording four outs in each and not allowing a run. The righty has inherited a pair of runners in three of his four postseason outings, allowing just one of them to score. He’s taken the role of fireman, coming on at the first sign of danger and just about perfectly evading big damage. With the day off on Monday, expect him to pitch two of the three games in Houston, likely in similar situations.

Barnes was always expected to be the top arm in this group, and after him the expectation was that it would be Ryan Brasier. The righty obviously came out of nowhere to be a real contributor this year after spending 2017 in the Japanese minor leagues, but he didn’t look ready for the stage in his first postseason appearance. In Game 1 of the ALDS, he looked like a deer in the headlights. Brasier inherited two runners and allowed both to score as he walked a batter, allowed a single and recorded one out. It was worrisome. Then, he came back out in Game 2 and looked like he calmed down. The righty had the now-famous moment of telling Gary Sanchez to get back in the freaking (he didn’t say freaking) box before striking him out. Overall, he’s tossed four scoreless innings since that original performance, though it’s also worth noting he’s come in with the bases empty in all four of those outings. Eventually, he’ll likely need to come in to clean up a mess at some point.

Insofar as the Red Sox have a Big Three in middle relief right now, Joe Kelly has been the man. I had confidence in both Barnes and Brasier heading into October, but admittedly I didn’t even think Kelly should be on the roster. He’s proven me wrong, and he’s proven that he enjoys this stage. On the surface, his performances haven’t been all that important, as he’s only pitched twice and they each happened to come in the lone losses Boston has suffered in the playoffs. Kelly was not at fault for either loss, though. In both games, the starting pitcher (David Price in the first, Chris Sale in the second) had to leave early and Boston needed someone to add a little length from the bullpen. Rather than turn to Eduardo Rodriguez, Alex Cora turned to Joe Kelly both times. The righty threw four combined innings in these two outings, allowing just an unearned run. He’s now made 14 relief appearances in his playoff career, and he’s allowed an earned run in just one of them.

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game One Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

Heath Hembree is the final part of this puzzle, though he is admittedly a much less important piece. The righty spent much of the year being a huge piece in the Red Sox bullpen, and was the primary reliever called upon with runners on base. He lost trust in the final couple months of the year, though, and now he’s among the last on the depth chart. He’s still there, though he does have three scoreless appearances in relatively low-leverage spots this postseason. He hasn’t looked particularly dominant, for whatever that’s worth, but the results have been there. With three consecutive games coming up, Hembree may be needed in more important spots and we’ll really see what he’s made of.

If the Red Sox get to where they want to go, they aren’t even halfway through their postseason journey yet. The bullpen still has more to prove, and it’s not time for a victory lap just yet. That being said, they absolutely deserve credit for what they’re doing right now. What was expected to be the team’s Achilles Heel has been a massive reason why they’re tied in the ALCS heading into Game 3. If Barnes, Brasier and Kelly keep pitching like this, a lot of people are going to have to eat their words. More importantly, the Red Sox are going to be tough to beat.