Alex Cora wasn't about to overreact, and he shouldn't have. The Red Sox won Monday night thanks in large part to a six-run third inning. In the big picture, it was a step the right direction, little more.
"It’s just one game, you know," Cora said after the 9-4 win over the A's at Fenway Park. "I’m not going to get caught up in, we’re getting better or we will be better. It’s just one day. We played good today." (For a recap of the Red Sox' win, click here.)
There is still a lot to fix, a reality that would have put on display once again if not for some key hits in that big inning by Xander Bogaerts and Michael Chavis. But there was one aspect of the Red Sox' 12th win of the season that they could lean on when searching for long-term optimism.
This post-Craig Kimbrel plan is actually working.
The reminder of how generally well Cora's late-inning relief-pitching blueprint came this time in the seventh inning, which is fitting considering that's the frame we've been led to focus on more than ever thanks to the new wave way of bullpen thinking.
With the Red Sox clinging to a three-run lead and American League home run champ Khris Davis coming to the plate Cora turned to one of his two kind-of-closers, Ryan Brasier. Designated pitcher vs. designated hitter. The result was exactly what Cora had drawn up, four straight sliders led to an inning-ending strikeout.
The other piece of the Red Sox' high leverage relief-pitching puzzle Matt Barnes would get the opportunity for the save this time around, picking up his second of the season by recording the game's final two outs.
Sure, Kimbrel would be nice to have for any team. He is a Hall of Fame closer still at the peak of his powers. And a case could be made that the real way to go would be to live life with Kimbrel and the current closers, thickening what has been an occasionally thin bullpen. But certainly, the way things are going for this team, that idea is far closer to luxury than a necessity.
This has been the part of the plan that has actually come up roses.
The Red Sox' pitchers currently hold the American League's lowest batting average against in close and late situations, and from the seventh inning and on. That's not a coincidence. As Monday night showed once again, Barnes and Brasier have been the weapons Cora had been banking on.
In the seventh inning this season, for instance, the two have combined to limit hitters to just one hit in 10 at-bats, striking out seven. The ninth? Batters are 6-for-35 against the duo, with Barnes striking out seven of his 15 opponents.
In fact, in close and late situations hitters are just 12-for-72 vs. the pair, with Barnes striking out nearly half of his foes (18 of the 37).
Another part of the plan was to use Barnes and/or Brasier against the opponents' iron, which was clearly the case in the Davis at-bat. Well, when facing hitters in the No. 3, 4 or 5 spots the two relievers have limited their opposition to just five hits in 27 at-bats, with Barnes getting 12 of his 18 outs on strikeouts.
So, save the screaming and yelling for something else other than bemoaning the absence of Kimbrel. There's enough elsewhere to focus on and fix than something that is actually working.