The bullpen, rightfully maligned all year, saved the Red Sox all weekend in Anaheim

The champs were built around their rotation this season, and that rotation's failed them again and again.

Matt Barnes helped close out Sunday's win, but not before he gave up another solo home run.

COMMENTARY

Boston’s annual trip to, wink wink, “Los Angeles,” was exactly the rollercoaster we’ve come to expect from the 2019 team. Nathan Eovaldi is still building up since returning from three months on the shelf, and the four innings he gave them on Friday night were a pleasant surprise given the eight strikeouts. David Price hadn’t pitched in a month before Sunday, and he gave them only two. Saturday’s game was destined to be a mess when Alex Cora declared they’d use an opener in the Traditional Tampa sense — Josh Taylor for an inning, Brian Johnson the bulk man who ended up going four in the middle.

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The 7-run eighth that ultimately denied a sweep felt like all the deserved problems of the weekend conveniently crammed in one place.

Asking a bullpen the Red Sox tried building on the fly to handle what ended up 27 of 33 innings, if we treat “starter” Taylor as the reliever he really is? If anything, the two out of three they’ve been consistently managing to win since the eight-game losing streak felt like overachieving this weekend, even if these Angels have been one of baseball’s worst — 27 losses in 42 games — these past two months. Sox pitchers issued 11 walks and gave up 22 Angels baserunners in 15 innings on Friday night, and went seven innings without a hit themselves.

In any other year, that game feels like an uplifting steal of the century. In this one, I’m sure it does for many, but there’s also that hint of knowing this movie’s going to end on Sept. 29 with Game No. 162, but not entirely being able to let October go because …

AL’S BEST RECORDS, AUG. 5-SEPT. 1
1. New York: 18-9 (.667)
2. RED SOX: 15-8 (.652)
3. Houston: 16-9 (.640 — 0.5 games lost to Red Sox)
4. Tampa: 15-10 (.600 — 1 game lost to Red Sox)
5. Oakland: 14-10 (.583 — 1.5 games lost to Red Sox)
6. Minnesota: 14-11 (.560 — 2 games lost to Red Sox)
7. Cleveland: 13-13 (.500 — 3.5 games lost to Red Sox)

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Twenty-five games left to play, now only 5.5 games out of the top wild-card — Tampa for the moment after sweeping crumbling Cleveland at Tropicana Field — and five behind the Indians with Oakland still to catch as well. They are still the clear longshot of the four teams chasing two playoff spots, but, well, they played really well in Minnesota back in June, and they’ve got four left head-to-head with the Rays, and they finish with Texas and Baltimore, and the Yankees can’t possibly keep pulling rabbits like Mike Ford out of their hats …

“Nothing is impossible in this game,” said Cora on Sunday afternoon. “I’ve been saying it all along, there are different ways to get to the World Series. We took the difficult road. We’re ready for it.”

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He said a mouthful, and there’s something fitting about him saying it in Anaheim. The Angels are on the precipice of some pitching history themselves: They’ve made it to September without a single guy throwing 100 innings, and it seems possible no one will. Innings leader Felix Pena is done for the year at 96 1/3 IP, as is No. 3 Griffin Canning (90 1/3). No. 2 Trevor Cahill needs just another 8 2/3 for 100, but just went a week without being used after an awful start to August and, perhaps more importantly, earns an extra $250,000 if he gets there.

There hasn’t been a major-league team to not have a 100-inning pitcher since 1884, when three teams in the one season of the Union Association didn’t. Since the formation of the American League in 1901, there’s only been one team to have just one 100-inning arm: Colorado in 2012, when the Rockies experimented with not letting anyone go much beyond 75 pitches to try and counteract the altitude of Coors Field.

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The tendency is to turn what LA’s done, building off Tampa’s pioneering of the opener, into a treatise on the end of starting pitching as we know it. There’s certainly something to that, but a couple specific caveats, however: Tyler Skaggs certainly would’ve reached 100 innings had he not tragically died in July, and the Angels pitching staff is no model to aspire to. After the weekend, they’re 24th in team ERA.

It does, however, put Boston’s problems with its rotation in a bit of useful context.

A year ago, the Red Sox got 655 innings out of Rick Porcello (191 1/3), Price (176), Chris Sale (158), and Eduardo Rodriguez (129 2/3) in the regular season. With the big contract given Eovaldi in December, what would we say the ideal for their $88-million quintet this year was? Maybe around 850, if we figure 200 from Porcello, 160 or so from Rodriguez, and 170–175 each from the other three? That’s around 60 percent of a 1,450-inning MLB season. That’s pitching into the sixth on average.

They’ll be lucky to get 700, with Sale done for the year shy of 150, Porcello’s 150 worse than even league average (though he’s trending upward), Eovaldi below 50, Price at just 107, and Rodriguez boosting the numbers with a slim chance at hitting 200. (He’d need another 35.) Baseball No. 10 rotation by fWAR a year ago, with a 3.77 ERA, is 14th this year with a 4.98, drastically worse than expected and blamed in this space (among others) for this mess of a title defense.

That, by fWAR, Sale (3.6, 19th), Rodriguez (2.4, tied 47th), and Price (2.3, tied 49th) are still top-50 starters in the current MLB environment speaks pretty clearly to the evolution of the game. It shouldn’t cloud, however, just how far from the plan these Red Sox really are, to the point that they called up Travis Lakins, Ryan Weber, and Hector Velazquez as part of the September roster expansion on Sunday, and immediately used all of them in relief of Price.

The opener idea worked for Tampa a year ago because it made sense for their personnel, with Blake Snell as their one traditional starter and a bevy of arms able to adapt to roles as needed. Washington spent even more on its rotation than the Red Sox did, and they’ll win in the low 90s and play in October despite a dreadful bullpen because those starters were what they expected them to be.

Going as the Red Sox have, with the starter done after three innings in essentially a fifth of their games? With more than a third of those 24 three-inning-or-worse starts coming from Price (4), Porcello (2), Eovaldi (2), and Sale (1)? It’s an almost comic misuse of their personnel, given the year began with the team hoping to stumble across another Ryan Brasier, and will end with the incumbent Brasier having spent a month in the minors and with an OPS against almost 250 points north of his 2018.

And yet, here they are on Sept. 1, still clawing for October. It’d be laughable to praise it as some underdog story, given they spent close to $240 million to need low-budget Cleveland/Tampa/Oakland to collapse in front of them, but it’s certainly an interesting path we’ve taken to get here.

A year ago, the road series against the Angels was among Boston’s first declarations of intent. LA was 13-3 out of the blocks, off to the best start in franchise history when the Red Sox came to town and, well, destroyed them. A 27-3 onslaught for three games, Mookie Betts cracking leadoff homers in two of them and Boston leading 6-0 after three innings in the other one. They left 16-2 on the way to 119 wins, while the Angels lost six of their next nine and were the best of the AL’s lower class in Mike Scioscia‘s finale season.

This year, what the Red Sox did against the Angels merely validated what five months have already showed us. They will win games despite their starters, saved by their bats, and by a bullpen that history will remember as uniquely unqualified to save anything despite it being a huge reason this isn’t a 70-something win team when it’s all over.

Payroll or not, talent or not, big offense or not, it would be mind boggling if it was still enough to play in October. It’s still an open question if it will, even if they’re walking a razor’s edge to avoid making the answer a clear no.