BOSTON — Around this time last October, Ryan Brasier was literally thousands of miles away from MLB relevance.
A journeyman reliever toiling for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan’s professional baseball league, the 30-year-old Brasier’s résumé read as follows: nine big-league innings for the Angels in 2013; Tommy John surgery the subsequent year and 2015 on the shelf; a ‘16 season entirely with Oakland’s Triple A affiliate; and now a year with the Carp in which he’d been briefly demoted to the Japanese minor leagues but otherwise pitched decently if unspectacularly. He was, quite simply, just another guy—one with a better chance of swimming across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to his home in Texas than of making a major league roster.
A year later, Brasier stood on the mound for the Red Sox at Fenway Park in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the ALCS, holding the ball and a one-run lead against the defending world champions, set to face three of the best hitters on earth. Against all odds, there he was in a pennant series, tasked with retiring 2017 World Series MVP George Springer, 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, whose numbers this postseason would make Barry Bonds blush. He did just that, getting Springer and Altuve before walking Bregman but escaping via an inning-ending groundout from Yuli Gurriel.
“You know, it’s been a crazy year,” Brasier said before Sunday’s Game 2, and it’s been an even wilder October for him and the other seven members of a much-maligned Boston bullpen that stumbled to start the postseason but has quickly rounded into excellent form. The Red Sox came into the playoffs with major questions about who in their relief corps could get the outs that separated the rotation from All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel. In Game 1 of the Division Series against the Yankees, the answer seemed to be “no one and anyone,” as manager Alex Cora burned through Brasier and Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman and even starter Rick Porcello to nail down those perilous final innings.
But while the Boston ‘pen looked as stable as the San Andreas Fault in that dreadful ALDS opener, allowing baserunners galore and almost blowing a 5–0 lead in the final four innings, life has become easier (if not quite predictable) for Cora. The combo of Brasier, Barnes, Kimbrel and—surprisingly—Porcello has allowed just three runs in its last 10 2/3 innings of relief, all—also surprisingly—off Kimbrel. In ALCS Game 2, that quartet soaked up the final 13 outs of the night behind David Price, striking out four and giving up only one run, in Boston’s 7–5 win.
“We’re confident in everybody that we have down there,” Brasier said afterward. “Anybody that comes in the game, we know can do the job.”
That didn’t seem to be the case after a disastrous ALDS Game 1, when walks were handed out like Halloween candy and a desperate Cora turned to Porcello, the scheduled Game 3 starter, to help save his bullpen. ALCS Game 2 found him once again called upon in relief, but where his Division Series outing was an expletive-prompting shock, Sunday night’s appearance was planned and controlled. After Barnes and Brasier handled the sixth and seventh innings, respectively, Porcello emerged from the bullpen to tackle the bottom of Houston’s order in the eighth and deliver a lead to Kimbrel. He did so with aplomb, getting pinch-hitter Tony Kemp to ground out to first base and striking out Marwin González and Carlos Correa, both swinging. That last punchout drew fist pumps and screams from Porcello as he came off the mound, fully embracing his unexpected Relief Ace role.
“That’s the first time in my entire life I’ve finished the eighth inning with a lead coming out of the bullpen,” he said postgame. “I was pretty damn excited.”
From the outside, this all may look like a haphazard mess: no-name career minor leaguers facing MVPs, a veteran starter as the top setup option for the closer, relievers popping up anywhere from the first inning to the ninth. But that controlled chaos defines October baseball, particularly for the bullpen, which must be ready to adapt to any situation and get whatever outs are asked of it. “You never really know what inning you’re going to pitch now, so you’re ready to go out there and do your job and get it to the next guy,” Barnes said. “It’s all hands on deck.” Added Porcello: “It’s whatever we’ve got to do to win ball games.”
That means turning to guys like Brasier and Porcello and whoever else can be found, sticking them in the ballgame and hoping for the best. At this time of year, best-laid plans get thrown in the garbage; so do thoughts of days off and rest.
“If we don’t get it done, we’re not going to throw another pitch for four months, and everything we did the entire year is over,” Porcello said. “So I’d much rather throw the s--- out of my arm now and have it feel s----y for three months with a ring on my hand then hem and haw about if I’m good to go and sit there feeling good the entire offseason. This is it. This is do or die.”
Those produce-or-perish moments, while deleterious to nerves and hearts, also tend to be the ones that surface unexpected heroes. So it’s been for Boston with Brasier and Porcello and Barnes and even the erratic Joe Kelly, all of whom have done yeoman’s work amid the postseason grind. Before the playoffs began, most Red Sox fans probably didn’t feel comfortable at the idea of Brasier facing the likes of Springer and Altuve or of Porcello trotting out of the bullpen or of needing double-digit outs from the bullpen night after night. The Red Sox won 108 games on the backs of a world-crushing lineup and Chris Sale’s golden left arm. To expect the relievers—who, aside from Kimbrel, seemed about as trustworthy as a counterfeit watch—to come through was as wild an idea as a guy like Brasier being a key part of that group in the first place.
But there he was, getting those high-leverage outs after a winter spent at home waiting for a team—any team—to call him before the Red Sox, in the middle of spring training, finally offered him a chance. “I wasn’t ready to be done,” Brasier said. Neither, as it turns out, was this Boston bullpen.