Andrew Bailey blew his third save of 2013 on Tuesday. (AP)
The Red Sox claimed a doubleheader sweep against the Rays on Tuesday, yet there remained an element of uneasiness to the team’s victory in the nightcap. While a ninth-inning walkoff from Jonny Gomes gave the Sox a 3-1 win the Game 2, the blown save by Andrew Bailey in the top of the ninth offered some cause for pause by the Red Sox.
Prior to Wednesday night’s contest against the Rays, manager John Farrell praised the work of his middle relievers, heaping accolades upon the work of bullpen arms such as Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller. But . . .
“We recognize there’s still work to be done with guys closing out games,” said Farrell.
The Sox entered Wednesday with nine blown saves, tied for the fourth most in the AL. The team has converted just 13 of 22 opportunities, a 59 percent success rate that is the second-worst in the AL (ahead of only Cleveland).
Bailey is 8-for-11 in save opportunities, with his three blown saves tied for the fifth most in the AL. Of the 15 pitchers in the AL with at least five saves this year, Bailey’s 73 percent conversion rate is worst in the league.
Thus far, the Sox and Bailey have avoided turning the issue into a crisis. The Sox, after all, have won all three games in which Bailey has blown a save. The club has just eight relief losses, fifth fewest in the AL. All of that may inform the Sox’ comfort in giving Bailey the slack needed to get back on track. Farrell made clear that, as of this point, there are no plans to have someone other than Bailey pitch the ninth inning.
Still, Farrell acknowledged the important of re-establishing Bailey as a dominant reliever — the one who carried a 1.47 ERA in his first 19 games, rather than the one who has given up homers in three of his last four games.
“Any time you can go to a guy to lock down a game in which you’re supposed to win, I think that keeps momentum going within our clubhouse. it keeps a positive atmosphere within that group and yet, every good player is going to go through some ups and downs along the way and that’s where our job as a staff comes in to get him back on track and have them perform to their capabilities,” said Farrell.
Bailey referred to his primary issue as throwing too many issues down the middle of the plate. While not quite as direct, Farrell didn’t disagree, but instead noted that Bailey hasn’t had the same explosive stuff since returning from the DL as he had before landing on it with a right biceps strain. That, in turn, has given him less margin for error when trying to miss bats, something that may require the Sox closer a) to change his sequence of pitches and b) to show an improve ability to stay in the strike zone with his off-speed stuff.
“I think it’s as much pitch selection and game-planning where he might not have that same second gear to his fastball up in the zone, where he might have to use his secondary pitches a little bit earlier in the sequence. But more importantly, to execute a secondary pitch for a strike,” said Farrell. I think over the last four outings, it’s been pretty clear that any time he throws a breaking ball, guys are spitting on it until he has thrown it for a strike. An increase in consistency to his breaking ball will go a long way.”
“I’ve seen [the second gear to the fastball] in flashes [since Bailey went on the DL], [but] not as consistent as when he went on the DL,” Farrell added. “But there’s been no complaints of soreness, no adjustment to his warmup routine, so all those are consistent. We’re dealing with a human being.”
For his part, GM Ben Cherington suggested that the broader body of work — a 3.22 ERA, 12.1 strikeouts per nine — point to a pitcher in whom the Red Sox can maintain confidence even with his more recent struggles.
“Andrew’s had a couple tough outings here recently, but if you look at the total body of work, his performance over the course of the season, he’s still having a very solid year,” said Cherington. “Every player goes through slumps. When your outfielder goes through slumps, those 0-for-5 days, nobody really notices. When it’s the closer, it gets more attention. He’s going through that, but we’re really confident he’ll get back on track and start closing out games again.”
While Cherington did not rule out exploring the trade market for potential closing upgrades, he also noted that, in addition to the team’s expectation that Bailey will emerge from his rough stretch, the Sox’ depth of middle relievers suggests potential roster alternatives if Bailey’s troubles extend over a longer period.
“You can’t ever be complacent when it comes to pitching. We have to keep our eyes open to what’s going on. We think we have some internal options if needed, perhaps a little better situated there than we have been the last year or two,” said Cherington. “But it’s something that, if the season goes on, it’s just something to stay on top of, stay aware of, and if there are ways to get better, we’ll consider those.