Analysis: Heading Into Playoffs, Closing Situation Biggest Question For Red Sox

Oct 5, 2016

Boston Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel celebrates the last out after they defeated the New York Yankees 4-2 at Fenway Park on Friday, April 29.
Credit AP Photo/Elise Amendola

The Boston Red Sox kick off their run for the team’s fourth World Series title in 12 years Thursday night, when they face the Cleveland Indians for Game 1 of the American League Division Series.

Pete Abraham covers the Red Sox for the Boston Globe, and he joined NHPR’s Morning Edition for a preview of the series.

  This is the Red Sox first time in the playoffs since 2011. They finished in last place last year. Who were the biggest factors in this year’s turnaround?

If you had to look at two players individually, it would be Rick Porcello and David Ortiz. And certainly David Ortiz, it’s not a surprise. He’s been a key component of their championships going back to 2004, 2007, and 2013. But with Rick Porcello, it was a surprise. He had a very tough first year in Boston. He came over in a trade in 2015 and struggled. This year, he’s a candidate for the Cy Young Award. When you have a pitcher who’s able to do that, and they were nearly 20 games over .500 when he pitched, that makes all the difference. I think Porcello stands, along with the great season of Ortiz, as the chief reason the Sox are where they are now.  

The Red Sox are facing the Cleveland Indians, a team fans here probably aren’t too familiar with. What do fans need to know about the Indians?

They’re a team that’s had a bunch of obstacles to overcome. They’ve had a lot of injuries in their outfield and they haven’t had a steady three-man outfield all season long. They’ve managed to score a lot of runs because they lead the American League in stolen bases. And up until about two weeks ago, they had an excellent pitching staff. They had a steady rotation until Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco both got injured and will miss the rest of the season. Francona is now trying to figure it out in terms of his pitching staff. He’s really got only two starters he feels like can go seven or eight innings if they had to, and a very good bullpen. So for him, the series going to be about keeping the Red Sox offense down and hoping he can wins games maybe 3-2, instead of the way the Red Sox want to win them, 6-4, or something like that.

Rick Porcello gets the start for Game 1, but then David Price for Game 2, and it’s Price really that has a lot to prove heading into this series.

Yeah, Price had what you could charitably say was an uneven first year in Boston. He had a rough start but got a lot better as the summer went on, and was very good in July and August. He’s had a rough time of it in the postseason in his career. It’s only 63 innings and that’s not a large sample size when you consider someone’s work over their career, but he’s had some rough starts in the postseason. He’s obviously never been on a team that’s won the World Series. For him, how he pitches in the postseason will really be what defines his season. If he comes out and pitches will in the postseason, I think people will look back and say he had a very good first year in Boston. And if he doesn’t, fans will say this is what we feared when we signed Price. So this will be a time for Price to really establish himself in Boston or open himself up to a lot of scrutiny.

For the Red Sox, what’s their biggest question mark heading into this series?

For me, it’s the closing situation. They had for the bulk of the season a very good closer in Craig Kimbrel. He’s a guy with playoff experience and someone who did pretty much exactly what they thought he would do. But he had a very bad last week of the season. He lost a couple games and walked a bunch of guys. His control was such that they had to take him out of a game in the middle of a game, something you very rarely see from a closer. And as they go into the postseason, it’s almost a situation where if he were to pitch poorly his first time out, they would consider making Koji Uehara the closer as he was back in 2013. Closing takes on a greater importance in the postseason because one blown game can really change the course of a series. And when the Red Sox have won the World Series, they’ve had very good closers. And they thought they had one maybe they still do in Kimbel, so how he pitches is something everybody will be keeping an eye on.

Given all that, do you have a prediction?

Yeah, I think with the Red Sox offense and Cleveland’s pitching, the Sox can take this series in four games. I think it’s going to be hard for Cleveland to overcome the fact they don’t have their top-flight starters. That to me is really the key to the whole thing. The Red Sox have their starters, they’re lined up, they’re rested. And Cleveland is kind of scrambling, so I think the Sox can overcome seeing their old manager in the other dugout, get through the series, and get to the American League Championship Series.