BOSTON — The Minnesota Twins are running away with the AL Central. They don’t have a conventional closer.
They do, however, have multiple high-leverage arms that can close if called upon. The Red Sox are looking up at the Rays in the AL East standings. They do the same thing: three Tampa Bay relievers have at least five saves.
It’s what Alex Cora, a new-age manager, clearly wants to do.
“A lot of people have their thoughts about the ninth inning, that those three outs are bigger than the first 24,” Cora said. “There’s others that feel there’s people that are ready for that one. They can (close) it there.”
Does Cora believe the ninth is different?
“I don’t. I really don’t,” the manager reiterated. “I just think if you execute pitches you get people out. (Monday) we didn’t and we paid the price.”
It’s easy to point at the Red Sox ninth inning numbers and disagree, but a deeper dive tells a different story.
Boston’s relievers came into last night with a 6.12 ERA and 1.64 WHIP, both near the bottom of the league, but how often have they trotted Tyler Thornburg out there in mop-up duty?
Quite a bit. Thornburg alone allowed 10 of the 34 earned ninth-inning runs, skewing the totals in a big way.
Cora basically has two-tiers of relievers, and the top is Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree and Marcus Walden. Their ninth-inning ERA is a 2.66.
“I feel great with the four guys that we have throwing the ball right now,” Cora said. “You compare us to other bullpens, yeah the saves are not there but we’re still doing a good job. We’re still matching up and finding matchups that are going to benefit us.“
Yes, the Red Sox need another legit arm — or two — on the back end, but it doesn’t need to be a conventional closer. It’s not like the ninth inning has been a Boogeyman for the guys they’ve got back there already.
Cora’s progressive bullpen strategy isn’t the issue, it’s a lack of high-octane arms to execute it.
The manager’s ideal blueprint is working in Tampa Bay and Minnesota because multiple late-inning relievers can be relied upon to execute in high-leverage situations.
In Boston, it’s just Barnes who’s consistently tasked with getting the heart of opponents’ lineups, and in mid-June, he’s already starting to look a bit burnt out by it.
Barnes has been asked to get high-leverage outs in 20 of his 27 appearances. For the seven weeks of the season, Barnes struck out half of the batters he faced, but he’s now been tagged for runs in five of his last nine outings.
Cora is cognizant of it; the Red Sox have been asking too much of the reliever at the top of their totem pole.
“It can’t be that easy. Physically, mentally,” Cora said. “Everybody in the big leagues is good, but at the same time there’s elite hitters and he was facing elite hitters day in and day out and that’s not easy. It’s like facing an All-Star lineup every night. You’ve got to be smart about it.
“Obviously there’s other guys that have stepped up and are throwing the ball well and now you’re like, OK, now you pick your spots and we can go here with this guy, we can go here with the other guy and we can help him out as far as not burning him facing the middle of the order.”
But how long can Workman, Walden, and Hembree be relied upon to give Barnes that rest?
Workman’s varying velocity has long been a concern, Walden has barely 30 big league games under his belt, and Hembree looked like a DFA candidate until the calendar hit May and he found his stride.
It’s on Dave Dombrowski to add another back-end arm with a proven pedigree — and soon.
Cora’s blueprint can work — heck, it is working for half the AL playoff teams — but to build a bullpen his way, the manager needs at least another tool or two. And not from the clearance shelf.
Chris Mason is a Red Sox beat writer for the Daily News and CNHI Sports Boston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMason.