BOSTON — “Oh f---.”
The thought flashed instantly through Rick Porcello’s mind as a call came into the home bullpen at Fenway Park and stirred him unexpectedly into action.
A starter by trade, the 29-year-old righthander had spent the night watching Game 1 of the Division Series from an unfamiliar spot in rightfield instead of his usual perch in the Red Sox dugout. There was a chance, he’d been told earlier that day by manager Alex Cora, that he would be needed in relief against the Yankees, so he trudged out to the bullpen in the first inning, ready if needed. He assumed, though, that he’d stay seated for the evening unless everything went completely haywire. And then exactly what happened.
As setup man Matt Barnes fired a curveball that dodged the glove of catcher Sandy Leon with two on, no one out and a 5–2 Red Sox lead that was wobbling like a Jenga tower, the bullpen phone rang. Get Porcello warm, was the order, prompting the four-letter expletive in his head that all 39,059 fans in attendance had likely spent the last two innings muttering under their breath or screaming out loud. They’d get many more chances to say it, both in anger and relief, before the night was up.
Given a five-run lead from starter Chris Sale and tasked with getting 11 outs to protect it, Boston’s beleaguered bullpen did its best to blow it all up. Five different relievers—Ryan Brasier, Brandon Workman, Barnes, Porcello and closer Craig Kimbrel—danced through fire over four f-bomb-inducing innings. Twice they got themselves into bases loaded situations, including one with no one out and the mighty Giancarlo Stanton at the plate in that madcap seventh, only to escape unscathed. They bent so far that they practically curved, but somehow—despite wild pitches and walks and constant danger from the game’s most powerful lineup—they never broke in a 5–4 win. And for that, Sox fans can thank the unlikely heroics of Workman and Barnes and, yes, Porcello, as Cora used every option he could to close out the victory.
“To get 27 outs at this stage right now is very difficult,” Cora said after the game. “And sometimes you have to go to plan B or plan C.”
Porcello, Cora admitted, was plan “C and a half.” Set to start Game 3 of the series in New York on Monday, Porcello had already thrown a bullpen side session in the afternoon of 20–25 pitches when Cora came to him during batting practice and asked him to be ready. “I was a little surprised but excited for that opportunity,” Porcello said. “What am I going to say, no? Any time he asks me to pick up a ball and step on the mound, I’ll do it.”
That Cora had to draft his starter into relief in Boston’s very first game of the postseason speaks volumes as to how shaky his bullpen situation is. Beyond Kimbrel and the usually trustworthy Barnes, there isn’t anyone Cora can pick from his remaining eight relievers—including three repurposed starters in Eduardo Rodriguez, Nate Eovaldi and Steven Wright—who inspires much confidence. That relief corps was the glaring weakness of a team that had otherwise shown few flaws en route to 108 regular-season wins, a third straight AL East title and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Friday night against the Yankees was its first big test, and it passed only by the slimmest of margins.
“No one ever said it was going to be easy,” said pitching coach Dana LeVangie afterward, in the understatement of the night. The trouble began right from the get-go. Sale, the source of so much concern coming into the night after missing most of the second half with a shoulder strain, had looked like his usual dominant self, blanking the Yankees through five. But hard-hit singles from Aaron Judge and Stanton knocked him out in the sixth. In came Brasier, a hard-throwing 31-year-old who spent the last three seasons toiling in Triple A and Japan but quickly earned Cora’s trust after coming up from the minors in early July. His first pitch: an RBI single by Luke Voit to make it 5–1. The next batter, Didi Gregorius, knocked in another run with a fielder’s choice. A wild pitch and a walk to Miguel Andújar later, and the bullpen carousel had begun to spin in earnest.
Replacing Brasier, Workman narrowly avoided disaster: After a four-pitch walk to Gary Sanchez to load the bases, he struck out Gleyber Torres on a diving knuckle-curve. But allowed to start the seventh, he gave up back-to-back singles to Andrew McCutchen and Judge. Out went Workman, in came Barnes, and up went both Porcello and Joe Kelly in the bullpen.
Barnes walked Gardner on seven pitches to load the bases yet again, this time with no one out, but enticed Stanton to hack through a curve for a strikeout—“Right matchup, right stuff to get him out,” LeVangie said—before Voit made it 5–3 with a fielder’s choice and Gregorius grounded out to second to end the latest threat. “That’s the game right there,” Cora said of Barnes’ miraculous escape.
Still needing three more outs to get to Kimbrel, Cora went to Porcello for his first relief appearance since last year’s ALDS Game 1 against Houston. That night, he was tasked with mopping up a dispiriting loss; here, his job was to keep that from happening. He quickly retired Andújar and Sanchez, but an infield single by Torres wrecked Cora’s hopes to save Kimbrel for a clean ninth. In came Boston’s All-Star closer, who fell behind McCutchen but got him to pop out to right on a 3–2 count.
The drama didn’t end there, as Kimbrel gave up a long solo homer to Judge into the Yankees’ bullpen to start the ninth and spike the blood pressure of every fan still capable of standing. But that was the last gasp, as he struck out Gardner, Stanton (his fourth of the night in five plate appearances) and Voit to end it.
“We knew where we were going,” said Cora of his bullpen strategy, but the path to Kimbrel was less of a straight road and more of a nauseating series of hairpin turns. It’s also something that the Red Sox can’t count on or survive going forward, either against the Yankees—who blew several opportunities—or anyone else. But with no reinforcements incoming (and perhaps down Wright, who was unavailable with knee pain and underwent an MRI after the game), the group that Cora has is the one that will have to figure it out, night after night. “We expect our guys in the bullpen to be available every game this series,” LeVangie said, adding, “Our training room has become an emergency room.”
On Friday night at Fenway, it was constant triage with a happy ending. Going forward, it’s an untenable strategy. “In a perfect world, the starter goes six,” Cora said, and Game 1 proved just how desperately the Red Sox need Sale and Porcello and David Price, who starts on Saturday in Game 2, to give them length. Unlike the Yankees and the other teams who built their bullpens for these tight October battles, Boston can’t plan to lean on its relievers.
For at least one night, though, the Red Sox did, and while those late innings may have set off an impromptu performance of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” across New England, the ultimate result was all that mattered.
“We got through it,” Barnes said. “When it comes down to October, wins are wins, and it doesn’t really matter how you get them.”