Red Sox Erasing Doubt In A.L. East

For most of the summer, Red Sox fans were looking forward to the final series of the season. The three-game set at Fenway against Toronto was almost surely going to determine the winner of the A.L. East. However, the Red Sox were determined to make that series meaningless. Since a 1-0 loss to Baltimore on September 14th, the Red Sox have yet to lose a game. Along the way, they have put the division crown out of reach for everyone else.

Sunday was just another day at the office for the Boston Red Sox. In another low-scoring A.L. Eastgame at “the Trop” in Tampa, Boston outlasted the Rays 3-2 in ten innings. The win marked the third straight series sweep and 11th straight win for the division leaders. The day was marked by 22 strikeouts by Red Sox pitching, an unbelievable base-running play by Dustin Pedroia, and a gutsy bullpen effort by Joe Kelly.

The streak has put the Red Sox five and a half games up on second place Toronto and seven up on Baltimore. Excellent starting pitching and a virtually unhittable bullpen are propelling the Red Sox right now. Add that to the league’s best offense, and the Red Sox are far and away the hottest team in all of baseball. After the win Sunday, Boston’s magic number to clinch the A.L. East is down to two.

Beyond The A.L. East Title

Not to get ahead of ourselves, the Red Sox will have meaningful games next weekend. While they should have already clinched the division, a much more important title may be at stake. With a playoff spot in tact, the Red Sox now eye home field advantage. They are just one behind the Texas Rangers in the loss column. If they were to pass the Rangers, they would own the best record in the American League and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

To think that the Red Sox could possibly have that title just a few weeks ago would have been absurd. With their best baseball of the season this month though, that’s where they find themselves. The Red Sox just surpassed Cleveland in the best-record race, meaning they would host the Indians in the ALDS if the season ended today. This offense is so good it really doesn’t matter where they play, but playing at Fenway would be a huge bonus. With that, the Red Sox could even find a way to slug themselves to the World Series. Luckily for the them, the pitching has been the brightest part if this September run.

Obviously, a run like this can not be expected in the playoffs. If they can keep up this pitching however, you can expect them to represent the American League in the World Series. As we all know, once you get there, anything can happen. Bottom line: don’t count out the Red Sox this October.

 

Finding The Man For The Enigmatic Eighth Inning

As the Red Sox look for a division title, their main weakness is not a mystery. Their bullpen struggles have come up far too often this season, costing the Red Sox games in the late innings. The biggest problem for the beleaguered bullpen has undoubtedly been getting the ball to Craig Kimbrel, as they have been terrible in the eighth inning.

All season long, John Farrell has had to wrestle with whom he can send to the mound in Eighth inningthe eighth inning of a close game. Most of the guys he has tried there have had injuries or career-threatening implosions on the field. These eighth inning woes have certainly contributed to the Red Sox’s 3-50 record this season when trailing after eight.

It seems rather sensible to put Koji Uehara in that role. Uehara started the season there and obviously has some closing experience. After a torn pectoral muscle that has kept him out close to two months, it’s unclear just what you’ll get from the 41-year old though. Brad Ziegler finds himself in a similar scenario. As a guy who has closed a majority of his career, he seems like another good man for the eighth. However, his recent illness, as well as command issues, have certainly placed him out of that conversation. Junichi Tazawa has also been hurt this season, but that has not been his biggest issue. Since he came back from the DL in July, Tazawa’s ERA has been 6.75 and opponents are hitting .328 off him. His ineffectiveness has been so bad that he may not have a career after October.

The most recent guy thrown into that role has been Clay Buchholz. Buchholz was not bad in that role, but obviously now he can not be the guy. Since Steven Wright may be out for the season, Buchholz has been thrown back into the rotation and has flourished. It would be very smart for the Red Sox to keep him there and use this hot streak before he inevitably gets injured.

So Who Should Really Be The Eighth Inning Guy?

That leaves the most intriguing and most qualified candidate. While the trade for him now seems like a bust, Joe Kelly could be absolutely perfect to fill this void. Kelly’s stuff is tremendous; it always has been. However, he clearly does not have great baseball IQ and gets hit hard the second time around the order. Luckily, he should not face that problem anymore. Kelly has three potentially devastating pitches and he has clearly let himself loose out of the bullpen. His fastball touching 100 MPH on the radar gun and with good location, he can be unhittable. If he can locate those pitches consistently, the Red Sox could potentially throw two Craig Kimbrel’s at opponents in the eighth and ninth inning.

Joe Kelly may have finally found purpose on this team and could really live up to a role. Kelly has seems a few different scenarios out of the bullpen since his return to the club, but the eighth inning is the most sensible for him. Let’s face it, if the Red Sox can solve this problem, they will be a really dangerous team in September and into October. If Joe Kelly can electrify and baffle hitters like his stuff shows he can, watch out for the Red Sox.

John Lackey Should Still Be With Boston

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher John Lackey was a strong contributor to the 2013 World Series team and trading him was a big mistake. Lackey had a roller coaster ride in a Sox uniform as he struggled in his first two seasons before becoming a reliable arm every fifth day for the organization. When the 2014 team was scuffling and the trade deadline came around, former Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington decided to part ways with John Lackey, trading him for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig.

Craig was struggling and his career looked to be dwindling and Kelly had his struggles inJohn Lackey the National League which typically doesn’t lead to success in the more hitter friendly American League. Meanwhile, Lackey seemed to be gaining form and becoming who the Sox thought they were getting him when they signed him to a five year $82.5 million deal. That improvement has continued and John Lackey is pitching like an ace, often going unnoticed behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester in the best starting pitching rotation in baseball.

Last season in St. Louis, Lackey had a 2.77 ERA and this season he has a 2.63 ERA for the Cubs. At this point in his career he will not wow you with his stuff but he hits his spots and gets guys out, something many Sox pitchers struggle to do. Lackey seems to be blossoming late in his career as last season was his best season to date and he’s on track to improve on those numbers this year. With John Lackey pitching so great, the Sox return of Joe Kelly and Allen Craig in the trade has been a catastrophe.

John Lackey Belongs with Red Sox Nation

Kelly has not established himself in the Sox rotation and is not looking likely to do so. Kelly has good stuff to work with but he has yet to put it together and it seems like yesterday the 28 year old was still a promising prospect. Kelly is now in the minor leagues, joining the other piece in the trade, Craig. Craig has been a disaster as he has been a minor leaguer for most of his tenure with the Sox organization. A once promising offensive player for the St. Louis Cardinals, Craig has seen his career vanish quickly and likely has played his last inning in the major leagues.

The Sox let go of a pitcher that was big time in the postseason in 2013 in order to gamble on a pitcher with upside who hadn’t put it together and a bat that was on the downfall. As a result, this trade is one of the worst in recent memory and the Sox 4.22 ERA as a pitching staff would be much better if Ben Cherington had stayed with John Lackey.

Joe Kelly Eyes Boston Return

I spotted Joe Kelly in the locker room when I walked in a few hours before the Pawtucket Red Sox were set to play the Toledo Mud Hens. Figuring that this would be a one and only chance to talk to the right-handed pitcher, I pulled out my recorder and approached him with a few questions, the first being, “How does it feel being back here?” Joe shifted in his chair and looked up. “I’ve been undefeated since I got here,” Kelly said as he put his cell phone down on his lap and grinned. It took me a minute to realize that he hasn’t pitched for the Red Sox AAA affiliate yet; I never took Kelly as a joker. Shifting to a more serious time, Kelly added, “I want to get consistent with my mechanics again and get back up [to Boston} as soon as I can.” Focusing on mechanics and getting his consistency back are just a few things on his mind as Joe Kelly eyes Boston return.

Kelly was taken by surprise when he learned he was being sent down to PawtucketJoe Kelly Eyes Boston Return after getting shelled by the Baltimore Orioles on June 2nd. Kelly went 2.1 innings giving up seven runs and seven hits before Red Sox manager John Farrell pulled him from the game that ended in a 13-9 loss for the Red Sox. While Kelly is 2-0 with 27 strike outs in 22.1 innings this season, he was becoming a concern for Farrell as his ERA climbed over 8.00 going into June. “He’s blessed with a golden arm and tremendous stuff, but the execution of it has not been as consistent,” Red Sox manager John Farrell told ESPN’s Scott Lauber. “So, we have made a move. We’ve optioned him back to Pawtucket in the pursuit to get him back on track.”

As Joe Kelly eyes Boston return, the rest of the Red Sox rotation continues to smooth out their own wrinkles. Pitching ace David Price gave up two runs, including a home run, on June 3rd against the Toronto Blue Jays that boosted his ERA to 4.88, not exactly what Dave Dombrowski had in mind when he offered Price a $217 million contract. Meanwhile, Eduardo Rodriguez is still trying to find his groove, Rick Porcello gave up five runs in his last start, and Clay Buchholz….do I even have to say anything?

Kelly’s Demotion was Long Overdue

Joe Kelly got lit up again Wednesday night, allowing seven runs on seven hits in 2 1/3 innings against the Orioles at Camden Yards. Afterwards, the Red Sox announced that Kelly was being sent down to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he will work on his game and hope to return a better pitcher than the one who posted an 8.46 ERA and 2.24 WHIP over his first six starts. Numbers like that wouldn’t fly on the Braves, let alone a first-place team, and in that sense Kelly’s demotion was long overdue.

While Kelly has dominated for brief stretches as a starter, he’s also had periods where he’s been absolutely terribleKelly's Demotion was Long Overdue. In 79 starts he has a 4.13 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and 1.75 K/BB ratio while allowing opponents to bat .266/.340/.401 against him—essentially what Hanley Ramirez is hitting this year. And don’t forget that nearly half of those starts came against weaker competition in the National League, making his numbers look better than they really are.

When Ben Cherington traded for Kelly two summers ago, he thought he was getting a young, hard-throwing hurler on the rise. Instead, it’s been one step forward and two steps back. Kelly’s walk rate nearly doubled immediately after the trade, while his strikeout rate remained shockingly low for someone averaging 95 miles per hour on his heater. The following year he picked himself to win the American League Cy Young award, only to wind up with a 4.82 ERA and 1.44 WHIP after making a midsummer pit stop in Pawtucket.

Rather than build off last year’s strong second half, Kelly reverted to his previous level of awfulness. He was walking nearly a batter per inning and allowing hits at a dizzying rate, looking generally lost on the mound. Last year the Red Sox could afford to let him work through his struggles, as they were out of the race by August. This year they can’t, which is why Kelly’s demotion was long overdue.

Kelly says his problems are mechanical, pointing to an issue with his arm slot. Hopefully he sorts things out and returns to the Sox a much-improved pitcher, as he did last year. But when or if he does, John Farrell shouldn’t be so quick to give him his job back. The Red Sox have seen this movie before, and they know how it ends.

Kelly the Key to Red Sox Rotation

The Red Sox rotation is an interesting collection of starters. There’s David Price, the obvious ace and former Cy Young winner (not to mention the richest pitcher in history). Behind him are potential number twos Rick Porcello and Clay Buchholz, who have frustrated Boston fans and media with their uneven performance. There’s Steven Wright, the enigmatic knuckle-baller who’s been the team’s best pitcher thus far in 2016. Then there’s Joe Kelly the key to Red Sox rotation.

Is Joe Kelly the Key to Red Sox Rotation?

It might seem crazy to call a number five starter the key to any rotation, let alone one of a first-place team, but that’s what Kelly isKelly the Key to Red Sox Rotation. When he;s right, the Red Sox go five deep in the rotation, with each member capable of churning out a quality start on any given night. But when he’s not (or hurt), the back of their rotation suddenly looks much thinner. That much was clear during Kelly’s month-long absence earlier this year due to a shoulder impingement, during which time Sean O’Sullivan started twice. No offense to O’Sullivan, but he should not be starting for a postseason contender or any team that wants to win..

At least you know what you”re getting out of O’Sullivan, even if it isn’t much. The same can not be said of Kelly, who like his rotationmate Clay Buchholz is still an unknown quantity despite spending several years in Major League rotations and possessing dazzling stuff. While both have shown flashes of greatness, neither has evolved into the consistently great starter everyone hoped they’d become based on their obvious talent. Most recently, Kelly showed how dominant he can be in his return from the disabled list last Saturday, when he limited a red-hot Indians lineup to one hit over 6 2/3 innings.

The problem with Kelly is that he’s just as likely to endure a stinker. In his first three starts of 2016  he had more earned runs than innings pitched and nearly as many walks as strikeouts. If anything, his month-long DL stint was a welcome reprieve, allowing him to work on becoming the pitcher who finished last year 7-0 with a 2.35 ERA over his final eight starts rather than the trainwreck with a 6.11 ERA in 17 starts leading up to that run.

Which version of Kelly is going to show up this year remains to be seen. The Red Sox would like to open their series against the Blue Jays with a win tomorrow, but for that to happen they’ll likely need a good start from Kelly. In fact, they’re going to need quite a few of those from him in order to get where they want to go this year. That might be asking too much of the erratic 27-year-old, and if it is then they should stick him in the bullpen where belongs and trade for a more established starter. They might even explore trading Joe Kelly the key to Red Sox rotation.