BOSTON — Throughout the second half, one of the chief criticisms of the Red Sox was that they didn’t do enough at the trade deadline, and particularly that they hadn’t acquired a high-leverage reliever who could reliably get big outs late in games.
As it turned out, maybe their big bullpen addition was on the roster all along.
Since being removed from the starting rotation in early August, Garrett Richards has emerged as arguably Boston’s most effective bullpen arm. The righty has dominated as a versatile reliever who has come through in high-leverage spots, mop up duty and every scenario in between.
Entering Wednesday Richards had pitched in eight games, thrown 15.2 innings and posted a 1.15 ERA, 0.957 WHIP and a strikeout to walk ratio of 19 to 4 out of the bullpen. He’d allowed just two runs on 11 hits, stranded all seven runners he’s inherited and held opponents to a .190 average and .483 OPS.
By comparison, Richards had a 5.22 ERA and 1.649 WHIP as a starter while opponents batted .300 with a .868 OPS against him.
What might explain this transformation? It starts between the ears, as coaches and teammates alike said Richards bought into his new role when he could have easily gotten discouraged.
“First thing is he’s embraced it and he understands that’s where his value is for us right now and we think he can do a good job of it,” said Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush. “He’s completely bought in to what it takes to pitch effectively out of the pen, how to use his stuff to prepare for hitters and also to prepare his body to be able to pitch in some cases three days in a row.”
“He’s been lights out,” said fellow pitcher Tanner Houck. “He’s truly stepped up to that role and said ‘alright, this is my role, and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability’ and I love to see how it’s gone for him so far.”
Richards’ reinvention as a bullpen weapon has been the latest instance in which he’s had to adapt in the face of adversity this season. Earlier this year, Richards was among the more outspoken pitchers affected by Major League Baseball’s crackdown of sticky substances, and in response he taught himself an entirely new pitch between starts in order to remain a viable threat on the mound.
Since moving to the bullpen Richards has also needed to adjust his approach to hitters, though he’s continued using all four of his pitches, which include a curveball, fastball, slider and changeup.
“In the bullpen you’re going to be a little more specific to the situation and the hitter — if you’re out there for three guys and it’s three guys who your slider plays best against, you’re probably going to throw a lot of them,” Bush said. “Where a starter when you’re facing the whole lineup two or three times through you’re going to use your pitch mix differently. But he’s still using all the same stuff.”
Richards’ emergence as a reliever has been a godsend for a bullpen that’s taken significant losses due to COVID-19 in recent weeks, and he’s played a key role in keeping the Red Sox afloat through the outbreak as the American League Wild Card race continues to heat up.
Now, after muddling through what he at one point he called “the worst season of his career,” Richards will have a chance to finish a tumultuous season on a high note.
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