The Boston Red Sox are playing in their first ALCS since their championship run in 2013. They punched their tickets with an anxiety-ridden, panic-inducing Game 4 victory in the ALDS over the Yankees, in which Craig Kimbrel was a pitch or two away from gift-wrapping a victory for New York.
But the Red Sox moved on. Give credit where credit is due. They went in to the Bronx in October and got the job done, something few teams have been able to manage in recent years. But however much momentum they gained from the improbable, unexpected, and absolutely delicious smackdown of the Yankees in Game 3, it seems like they lost a good chunk of it (if not all of it) in the way they closed out the ALDS in Game 4.
Add in the fact that the Red Sox are going into this ALCS against a freight train of a Houston Astros squad, and Boston suddenly finds themselves as Vegas underdogs- in a series where they have home-field advantage after finishing the regular season with baseball’s record. It’s put up or shut up time for the players, and quite possibly, for President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski.
Let’s be clear:
But the one place on the roster Dombrowski has notoriously left untouched is the bullpen. Going in to the season, it was unclear who Boston’s 8th inning guy would be, the guy who could bridge the gap to Kimbrel in the 9th. The same question lingered at the trade deadline, but Dombrowski and the Red Sox were complacent with the pieces they had. And now, through one series of the playoffs, this question is more glaring than ever.
It’s been a matchup-based puzzle between the same few pieces from April to October: Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, Brandon Workman, and Ryan Brasier. Often times it seemed to simply boil down to who was the hottest arm that week. Fortunately for the Red Sox, stellar bullpen play was a “nice to have”, not a “need to have” this season. They were so often killing teams late in games, a mediocre appearance out of the pen was not nearly as noticeable. And the Red Sox absolutely mopped up against the bottom feeders of the league (42-9 combined against Baltimore, Toronto, Kansas City, and Texas). So while the bullpen posted average cumulative numbers on the season, it could be argued that a decent amount of those innings came against bad teams after the Boston offense had put the team ahead for good.
In any case, Dombrowski doubled down on his bullpen when the trade deadline came, choosing to stand pat and test the playoff waters with the guys he has had at his disposal all year. This series will prove once and for all how sound Dombrowski’s logic was at the time. Houston is a more well-rounded team than Boston, and the ultimate opponent in a matchup to decide the American League’s best squad. If the Red Sox advance, then Dombrowski and his players will have proved their mettle and backed up their record setting season with an equally impressive ALCS victory.
But if they lose. If they look totally outclassed in a brief 5 game series in which the bullpen can’t hold it together, then it’s debatable whether or not you could really call this season a success. A good season? Sure. A success? Maybe. Maybe not.
Perhaps you could make the case for the players, as well as manager Alex Cora, as they can only go out there and play as hard as they can each night with whatever guys they have. And 108 wins and an ALCS appearance is nothing to sneeze at. But for Dombrowski, who stayed pat while all other contenders in the league acquired bullpen help at the deadline, a loss in this series would be much harder to paint in a good light. Because he had the chance to at least try to improve the bullpen (the only real issue on this team during the season) and instead chose to defer. The bullpen could very well be the deciding factor in this series, which puts Dombrowski in the spotlight just as much as any player.