June 22, 2022

The Red Sox are 9-1-2 in their last 12 series, six games over .500, and have reached third place in the American League East. A team that looked down and out in early May has recovered enough to find themselves in playoff position, and all it took to get there was a nice long stretch of games against weak competition.

Should Red Sox fans be less negative about the team’s chances this year and start to believe in them a little it? Absolutely.

Should they be high on the team now that they’ve achieved some level of respectability? No. 

They’re beating the teams that they should beat, which is good. Unlike the Red Sox of this past April, they’re not playing down to their competition or flailing in the dark for ways to win night after night. However, they have still not shown that they can play complete baseball games against solid MLB competition.

The reason for this is clear: their unreliable bullpen.

With a month full of games against the Yankees, Rays, Blue Jays, and little else up ahead, the friendly boost that Boston’s recent strength of schedule has granted them is about to be yanked out from under them. The time has come for the Red Sox to prove their mettle against the legitimate Major League teams in their division. It’s sink or swim time, fellas, and Boston’s bullpen could be the cinder block that drags them down to Jimmy Hoffa-ville.

The incredibly successful west coast trip of early June certainly inspired some confidence in me despite the fact that those wins came against two bad teams and a dumbfounding disappointment of a third team. However, going from Boston to the west coast to play a stretch of ten games is always a daunting task regardless of the quality of competition. To come away from a trip to Oakland, Anaheim, and Seattle with eight wins is a serious accomplishment.

But it was last weekend’s series against the Cardinals that I had been looking forward to for quite some time.

Despite having a similar record to the Red Sox, St. Louis is a first place team with solid players across its roster. They are one of the best run organizations in the league, and there’s not much that they don’t do well. Taking two out of three would be a big step forward for the Red Sox, who had largely regained their mojo through beating up on weaker competition.

The Red Sox did manage to win the series. In typical 2022 Red Sox fashion, however, it was good news/bad news.

After potential All-Star Michael Wacha combined with bullpen lynchpins John Schreiber and Matt Strahm for one run on six hits through eight innings Friday night, Austin Davis had his worst outing of the season, allowing three runs on two hits while retiring only two. New closer Tanner Houck surrendered another run before mercifully getting the last out to secure the sudden nail-biter, 6-5.


After waffling rookie Kutter Crawford and relief outcasts Hansel Robles and Hirokazu Sawamura got trounced Saturday, the Ace took over in the rubber match Sunday afternoon. Although Nick Pivetta started off a little wild, he completed seven strong innings with 10 strikeouts while giving up only one run. After Schreiber struck out the side in the eighth to give the Red Sox their second 6-1 ninth inning lead in three games, it was Tyler Danish’s turn to screw the pooch.

Danish threw up a stat line that was nearly identical to Davis’ from Friday, adding a walk for good measure. Once again, a would-be decisive victory became a disturbing save situation where the closer had to unexpectedly enter the game to get one out. Houck threw a total of 25 pitches all weekend, and was certainly not burned out by any means. But the idea that the Red Sox do not have enough quality arms in the bullpen to finish off an easy win without using their top guns is a disturbing trend that has haunted us in some form or another all season long.

On the bright side, at least they now have a few guys that can even be designated as “top guns.” After Jake Diekman, Ryan Briasier, Robles, Sawamura, Crawford, and others showed us just how untrustworthy they are in high-leverage situations, Strahm, Schreiber, and Houck have finally unveiled themselves as the trio that we can expect to see in the late innings of close games moving forward. Considering the messes we’ve seen so often this season once Boston’s dominant starting pitchers have exited, that in itself is reason enough for us all to breathe a big sigh of relief … or perhaps even shed tears of joy.

Before 2022, it was injuries, rather than ineffectiveness, that had kept Matt Strahm relegated to the reclamation project scrapheap that Chaim Bloom loves to scour. His scouting report had always been solid, so the fact that he can deal under pressure should not be some huge surprise now that his body seems to finally be in working order. The big revelation this season has been John Schreiber.

Schreiber flamed out after a couple cups of coffee in Detroit in 2019 and the fake season, then fought his way up to the Red Sox for three innings of mop up duty last year. Nobody had heard of him before he got called up back in April, and most people outside of Boston still haven’t heard of him. His sidearm delivery accentuates a sweeping breaking ball that is well complimented by a fastball that had topped out at 93 mph until 2022. These days, it somehow touches as high as 97 mph.

Like Strahm, Schreiber is a vintage Chaim Bloom signing: a guy that makes $600k per year that has now earned 11 holds while giving up 9 hits, 5 BBs, and 2 ER with 25 Ks in 21 IP to the tune of a 0.86 ERA.

Tanner Houck being moved into the closer role makes perfect sense, although it is a bit of a surprise to me. It seemed that Bloom formerly had long-term plans for Houck as a starter. Now, in something of a role reversal from 2021, Garrett Whitlock seems to be the golden boy that the brass has earmarked for superstardom as a starting pitcher, leaving Houck available to serve the team in a less prominent capacity.

And while Houck has very good stuff, including one of the better sliders in the league, his pitch arsenal plays much better against righthanded hitters than lefties. I think that his uneven splits (.200 with a 4.45 K/BB ratio vs RHH, .234 with a 2.21 K/BB ratio vs LHH) were the main reason that Houck was not considered for the closer role until recently. But when Diekman, Robles, Sawamura, and Brasier took themselves out of the running with their ineffectiveness, Bloom and Alex Cora were frankly left with no other options.

So far, it has worked out. Houck is five for five in save opportunities since taking on the role, and having his 6’5″ 220-pound frame waiting in the wings to pitch the ninth has allowed Strahm and Schreiber to settle into the setup roles that fit them so well. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But with a month of games against the world beating Yankees, matchup ninja Rays, and bomb-dropping Blue Jays on the horizon, I fear that Houck’s slider-splitter combination will be exposed. He doesn’t throw 100 mph, and he often lacks command of his frisbee-like slider and erratic splitter.

I think the hefty AL East lineups are talented enough to lay off when necessary and tee off as needed. While I agree that Houck is the best closer the Red Sox have to offer, I have serious doubts that he will be good enough to regularly lock down the ninth inning throughout the difficult month of July.

What I have no doubt about whatsoever is Houck’s effectiveness when the Red Sox travel to Rogers Centre at the end of June to take on the second-place Blue Jays. Being unvaccinated, Tanner Houck becomes literally useless once the Red Sox cross the border, which bumps everyone else in the bullpen up a slot.

I’m not going to get political or weaponize a public health crisis to my own ends in print, but that righty-heavy lineup is exactly the sort of squad that Houck was born to dominate for an inning. Since the Jays are so stacked with righthanded power hitters, Schreiber will likely get the call as the closer in Toronto, meaning Strahm and Tyler Danish and/or inexplicable Cora favorite Ryan Braiser will be used as the bridges to the ninth. 

Here’s hoping that the postseason path to the World Series does not go through Toronto. 

I’m the first to defend Chaim Bloom in virtually every debate. He completely rejuvenated the Red Sox farm system in only a few years, built an elite starting rotation using undervalued castoffs, and constructed a team that shocked the world by reaching the ALCS last season. I support his philosophies and admire his creativity.

But even I can’t help but shudder at the thought of the bullpen he has put together in 2022 standing up to the four consecutive weeks of offensive steamrollers that lies ahead. And that’s with the Red Sox packing one of the best offensive attacks and starting rotations in all of baseball.

After all, it’s not how you start the game that matters.

It’s how you finish it.

By Luke

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