The Red Sox enter this weekend’s series vs. the Royals tied for first place in the AL East with the Blue Jays. With just 35 games to go, we’re now at the point of the season where every game is crucial. The Royals come in red hot and they’ll provide a good test for the Red Sox. If you’ve been watching the Sox over the past month, you know that they have been playing very well. However, they still don’t have the look and feel of a team that could make a deep playoff run.
The Red Sox offense has been excellent. They continue to lead MLB in runs scored. The starting pitching is the third best in MLB since the All Star Break. So, what’s the problem?! The bullpen has been a major pain point. In fact, the Red Sox have lost seven games in the past month where they had the lead in the 7th inning. Seven games! What a difference those games would have made in the standings… This certainly isn’t a recipe for playoff success. When the Red Sox have the lead late, Red Sox Nation is waiting for the bullpen to implode. Their relievers have had struggles and John Farrell seems to find a way to push the wrong button more often that not. It’s a shame that this season could go to waste considering how good the offense and starting pitching is. But wait…are there still options to improve the bullpen?
The Red Sox reportedly have been going after Jonathan Papelbon. Oddly, it’s been over ten days since this was reported and he still hasn’t made a decision. Is he going to play this year? Who knows. However, the Red Sox need to plan as if he’s not going to be part of this team. If he joins it, it will be a bonus. So, what next? The Red Sox do have Craig Kimbrel anchoring the bullpen and he has been outstanding since coming back from his knee injury. For the most part, Brad Ziegler has been reliable. After that? Matt Barnes, Fernando Abad, Robbie Ross, and Junichi Tazawa. Anyone feel good about these guys? Two reliable relievers isn’t enough. The Red Sox can’t expect to have success in close games with this bullpen and a manager who is inconsistent with his moves. What’s the answer?
Koji Uehara threw a 50-pitch bullpen today at Fenway Park. He appears to be on his way back from injury. Now, if we were expecting Koji to provide a full season of setup duty, we all know what the answer would be. It isn’t going to happen at his age. However, can Uehara pitch well for a four week stretch and help the Red Sox get to the postseason? Absolutely. And this is exactly what this team needs. Koji has had dominant stretches over the past two years, but they just haven’t lasted. In this case, they don’t need it to. What they need is for Koji to solidify himself as the legitimate third bullpen arm to go along with Kimbrel and Ziegler for a month or two.
There doesn’t appear to be a timetable for Koji’s return. He won’t be rushed. There will probably be a rehab outing or two. But, if and when it does happen, this would be just what the doctor ordered. Koji doesn’t need to be as dominant as he was during the 2013 championship run. He just needs to be a serviceable 7th and 8th inning arm. If he’s healthy, he could be the difference in the Red Sox missing the playoffs and being a serious championship contender as he would fill the most glaring need on a very talented team.
Koji won’t be saving games as a closer like he did in 2013, but he could be just as important in terms of saving this season.