The good, the bad, and the ugly.
The good is obvious. The Red Sox ran out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning of Sunday night’s nationally televised game against the Astros. Boston then scored two runs in the top of the 12th inning to win the game 7-5. The key hit was a one-out, bases-loaded single by Jackie Bradley Jr. That single gave the Red Sox a 6-5 lead, following a Mookie Betts fielder’s choice, Astros reliever Ken Giles uncorked a wild pitch which allowed Ryan Hanigan to score the Red Sox seventh and final run.
More good? The Red Sox relief corps, or at least everyone that came out of the Red Sox bullpen not named “Kimbrel.”
Matt Barnes, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara and Heath Hembree combined to work 7.2 scoreless innings. Hembree was particularly impressive. Hembree worked the final three frames. He kept the Astros off the board, allowed only two hits, walked none, and struck out four.
Since being recalled from Triple-A Pawtucket, Hembree has pitched 7.2 scoreless innings and struck out 11. As of Monday morning Hembree has been everything the Red Sox would have hoped Carson Smith would have been, had be been healthy.
The bad? The Red Sox clearly had a lead, and seeing as how the game lasted until the 12th inning, that lead was clearly squandered.
Speaking of squandered, the Red Sox were 4-for-17 with runners in scoring position and left 13 men on base.
The ugly? Craig Kimbrel, come on down.
Dave Dombrowski’s reign in Detroit was marred by bullpen issues. Red Sox fans are about as aware of this as anyone is. After all, Dombrowski put together the bullpen that former Tigers manager Jim Leyland turned to back in October of 2013. It was game 2 of the ALCS. Detroit was winning 5-1 entering the bottom of the 8th. They were six outs from leaving Fenway with a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
That all changed in the eighth when four Tigers relievers failed to keep men off the bases, and then failed to keep David Ortiz from hitting a legendary game-tying grand slam home run into the Red Sox bullpen in right field.
Rick Porcello was brought in to pitch the ninth, and was the eventual losing pitcher in the 6-5 series changing Red Sox win.
The Tigers would not recover from Ortiz’s blast. Dombrowski’s time in Detroit saw plenty of success, but aside from one dominant season courtesy of Jose Valverde, the team never really could find a reliable closer. Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria both struggled to be the type of lights-out closers they were prior to their arrival in Detroit.
All of which brings up to Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel was acquired by Dombrowski to shore up a Red Sox bullpen that was among the league’s worst in 2015. The Red Sox parted with at least two legitimate major league prospects to acquire the hard-throwing, 27-year-old, four-time All-Star.
Kimbrel entered the game to start the ninth. The Red Sox had the same 5-3 lead they had when Sox starter Henry Owens was pulled from the game with one out in the fourth inning.
The dangerous Jose Altuve led off and fouled out. Nothing wrong with that. Kimbrel got George Springer to strike out, two out, none on and it looked like Kimbrel’s abysmal Patriots Day appearance was in the rear view mirror.
Next up was Carlos Correa. The future, or perhaps current, 21-year-old super star shortstop laced a double to right field. That brought up Saturday’s villain, Colby Rasmus.
Sunday night Kimbrel threw an 0-1 fastball right down the middle, and Rasmus mashed the ball to deep right field for a game-tying two-run homer.
Last season, while pitching primarily in the pitcher-friendly confines of San Diego’s Petco Park, Kimbrel allowed a career-high six home runs. So far this season he’s given up two home runs in just nine innings of work.
It is far too early to declare the Kimbrel trade a failure or success, but it isn’t too early to point out that his early season struggles are uncharacteristic and thus somewhat of a concern.
His fastball is still in the high 90’s and missing bats has not been a problem, but when hitters have connected with Kimbrel’s pitches, the results have been unnerving. Even when Kimbrel was at his most dominant, he has occasionally struggled with fastball location and has been known to issue a walk or two every now and then.
The 98 mile-per-hour heater he threw to Rasmus was too easy to hit. That might sound odd, but when a major league hitter knows a fastball is coming, and that fastball is right over the middle of the plate, it can still get crushed.
In February of 2014, FanGraphs.com’s Jeff Sullivan wrote a column analyzing what made Kimbrel so effective as a closer.
“Kimbrel’s whole thing is avoiding contact.”
That’s a simplified version of the analysis, but less than one month into the 2016 season, it feels fairly pertinent.
To be blunt, Kimbrel has not been avoiding contact, not with the frequency he’s used to. According to Brooks Baseball, Kimbrel started 2016 with a career swing-and-miss percentage of 15.22 percent on his fourseam fastball. He threw that fastball for a strike 32.74 percent of the time. This season his swing and miss percentage is more modest 12.88 percent and he’s throwing the pitch for a strike 30.30 percent of the time.
Is that making a difference? It has so far. Especially since within those seemingly modest decreases in swings-and-misses, are two massive home runs courtesy of Chris Davis and Colby Rasmus.
Kimbrel has a record of 0-1, he’s got five saves, and after last night’s appearance has a blown save as well.
The 16 K’s in 9 innings pitched are great, the five walks and two home runs have been very costly.
Sunday night’s win left the Red Sox with a record of 9-9, that’s good for a second place tie in the mediocre AL East.
Monday the Red Sox travel to Atlanta to face the Braves. No team in baseball has a worse record than the Braves at 4-12. First pitch is scheduled for 7:10 pm ET. Rick Porcello (3-0, 4.66) faces Julio Teheran (0-2, 5.64)