January 29, 2023

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Boston's 'pen squanders big lead: 'Very tough to watch'

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BOSTON — This season isn’t yet two months old. However, the Red Sox bullpen has already endured many low points.

None of the previous mishaps can match what took place Friday night at Fenway Park.

After starting pitcher Garrett Whitlock (career high of six innings, two runs) and the red-hot offense set the team up for what seemed like a sure victory, the bullpen couldn’t hang on.

Leading by six after six, Boston’s relief crew gave up three in the seventh, three in the eighth and yet four more in the ninth for a crushing 12-8 defeat to the Orioles. It was the first time since Sept. 6 that the Red Sox relinquished a lead of six runs or more.

“Very tough,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “We were very short bullpen-wise. We had an 8-2 lead and some guys we trust [didn’t come through]. They hit the ball out of the ballpark twice and put together good at-bats. They were very relentless in that aspect. It was very tough to watch, but we’ve got to turn the page.”

It is a page that must be turned almost instantly. The Red Sox and Orioles have a split doubleheader on Saturday, with the festivities scheduled to start at 12:10 p.m. ET.

“Every loss is tough. One like tonight, it stings,” said Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts. “Especially with the weekend we have ahead, five games in four days. Obviously, it would’ve been nice to start off with a win after the way we’ve been playing.”

That’s what made the defeat tougher to stomach for the Red Sox. They’ve finally been putting it together as a team after a wobbly start.

A win Friday would have given them 12 wins in their last 16 games, and eight out of nine. It also would have put them within one game of .500, which would have been significant for a team that has been below .500 since April 23.

Instead, they got a reminder of how losses can come out of nowhere when the bullpen is the most unsettled aspect of a team.

The Red Sox are 8-for-20 in save opportunities this season. Eight of the blown saves have come in the eighth inning or later.

Through 45 games, Boston has a bullpen ERA of 4.09. As a staff, the Red Sox have an ERA of 5.30 in the eighth inning or later.

As ultra-hot as the Red Sox have been offensively of late, and as dependable as the starting pitching has been, sustaining their recent level of success as a team is going to be difficult unless the bullpen improves its performance.

A couple of things could help in the not-too-distant future.

The biggest would be the return of Chris Sale, which could allow Whitlock to go back to the bullpen. Sale is expected to throw off the mound three more times next week, and could be within five weeks or so of returning to action. James Paxton, coming off Tommy John surgery, could provide additional depth by July or August.

The second would be some external upgrades from chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, though trade season typically doesn’t get going until late June or early July.

The culprits in Friday’s loss were Jake Diekman (three runs in one inning), John Schreiber (two runs in two-thirds of an inning) and Matt Strahm (five hits, three earned runs and just one out recorded).

Schreiber and Strahm had been two of Boston’s top relievers of late.

“I mean, yeah, it was one game,” said Diekman. “It happened from the seventh to the ninth, probably took an hour. In the past three weeks, we’ve had a really bad one hour. Our hitters are getting hot. We know the starters and [the offense] are going to put us in every game.”

But for the Red Sox to get to where they want to get as a team, the bullpen needs to hold up its end of the bargain on a more consistent basis.

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