Wednesday was an absolutely brutal game for the Red Sox and one of those losses that sticks with you for a while as a fan. It counts the same as any other loss that happens over a long season, but it felt like a punch in the gut. Really, the game was lost in the top half of that eighth inning when Boston got two runners in scoring position with nobody out and failed to score a single run to add to their one-run lead. It felt inevitable that the Yankees would take a lead after that, and they did exactly that.
As frustrating as that half-inning was, the bullpen is going to be a big part of the narrative as well, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the management of said bullpen is a part of that. The performance was obviously awful. Matt Barnes came on first and fell behind 2-0 to all three batters he faced and ended up allowing a double and a walk with a groundout in between. Craig Kimbrel came on to finish off the eighth after that, but he immediately allowed a two-run triple and a two-run home run to give the Yankees a three-run lead in the blink of an eye. Not great!
As far as the management of this game went, I can see the argument against bringing in Barnes for that eighth inning. I was fine with it at the time as I am a big-time believer in the righty, though even I thought Kelly was the better choice just because Neil Walker led off the inning as a switch-hitter. Kelly has proven better against lefties than Barnes. On top of that, Barnes has had some struggles on the road in the past as well as in high-leverage situations, and protecting a one-run lead in Yankee Stadium is pretty high-leverage. So, the criticism here at the very least has some merit even if it wasn’t something I was clamoring against at the time.
The real narrative that I expect to build, however, is that Kimbrel can’t come in before the ninth inning. That is just false, and bringing in the closer for the situation they were in was a no-brainer move. The Yankees had the top of their fearsome lineup heading to the plate, and with two runners on base you have to bring the best pitcher you have to try and get out of this situation. The Red Sox are fortunate to have one of the best relievers of all-time to which they can turn. Obviously, it didn’t work out this time around but it was the right call. It was also a call that Alex Cora has to be willing to make moving forward as well.
There are a couple arguments against it, one that is pure phooey (pardon my language) and another that is pretty valid, though with a clear answer. The first argument is a narrative that has been building for a few years now and one that is brought up every time this happens. There is a legitimate belief out there that Kimbrel can’t pitch before the eighth inning, as in he just breaks down in the situation. It’s just not true. The narrative developed in 2016, and to be fair he wasn’t great in the eighth inning that year, allowing a .757 OPS compared to a .511 mark in the ninth. Of course, that also came in just five appearances. He came back in 2017 and allowed a .282 OPS in the eighth, and over his career that mark is .446. It just goes to show you what first impressions can do for a narrative.
So, that argument is obviously wrong as Kimbrel has been amazing in every inning he’s been asked to pitch throughout his career outside of a handful of outings here and there. The other argument is that you don’t want him having to throw four- or five-out saves on a regular basis. This is a more fair concern, not because he can’t handle it on any given day — Kimbrel is amazing and it’s hard to doubt him in any situation — but because it’s not smart to overwork a pitcher like that. However, with that being said, nobody says Kimbrel needs to finish off every game he pitches. Wednesday night, for example, could have seen him just in there to get through the first five or six batters in the Yankees lineup. If the game was still going after that point, then they could have turned to Kelly or someone else. The main factor here is that you want Kimbrel facing the best hitters in the opposing lineups, regardless of whether or not that ends the game.
Of course, getting the closer to buy into that is easier said than done. Closers are still forced to think of saves as the path to money for the early parts of their careers given how much they count for in arbitration. It’s hard to get out of that mindset, especially for a guy like Kimbrel who’s going to justifiably be looking for a massive payday this winter. Now, teams don’t really pay for saves like they used to on the free agent market, instead just looking for good relievers over guys with lots of saves. There’s still a narrative that saves get money, though, and it’s up to Cora to find a way to communicate with his closer and get him to accept a role that includes some non-save situations.
Cora has said since he took over the job that we’d see Kimbrel in the eighth inning sometimes, and he’s done it twice to this point. In the first one, he got the save though he allowed three hits in the effort. Wednesday, of course, did not go so well. It would be easy to just go back to using Kimbrel in the ninth inning after these results, particularly with a loud fanbase that generally seems against using Kimbrel in anything other than the ninth. Cora seems too smart to feed into this, but just in case he’s looking to me for guidance: Keep using Kimbrel in these situations. It’ll pay off more often than not.