BOSTON — It’s not hard to think of recent examples of starting pitchers excelling in bullpen roles in the postseason.
During the Astros’ championship run last year, Lance McCullers Jr. threw four scoreless innings in long relief against the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS. Clayton Kershaw notched the only save of his career by throwing ⅔ of an inning to close out the Nationals in Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS. And Madison Bumgarner, famously, threw five shutout innings to finish off the Royals in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, capping arguably the greatest postseason pitching performance of all time.
But where most examples reflect either a club drawing from rotation excess to lengthen its bullpen or an ace doing extra duty with the season on the line, manager Alex Cora and the 2018 Red Sox — a club that entered the postseason with its relief corps looking like a weakness — have normalized a strategy of using rotation members for setup work in the playoffs.
In Tuesday night’s 8-4 win over the Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series, Nathan Eovaldi worked a spotless eighth inning before turning the ball over to closer Craig Kimbrel and helped Boston cover for a short outing from ace Chris Sale.
“I feel like in the past few years, the bullpen has been a big role,” Eovaldi said Tuesday. “Everybody has taken the ball at any time — you might be going out there for multiple innings, it might just be one hitter, but you just need to be ready to go. Tonight, no one even said anything, it was just, get up and get ready to go. I feel like that’s what everyone’s doing now.”
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Rick Porcello was also available out of the bullpen on Tuesday. Eovaldi and Porcello will likely start Games 3 and 4 of the series, in some order. Sale, too, got in on the action with a perfect eighth inning against the Yankees in Game 4 of the ALDS. Cora referred to the role as “the rover” in his press session after Game 1.
He has used his rovers to cover all or part of the eighth inning in five of the Red Sox’ eight postseason games to date this year. Combined, they’ve thrown five scoreless innings, allowed two hits, struck out four and walked none. Starting pitchers on off days have become Cora’s most reliable setup option this October.
“I think having Nate and Rick available gives us a chance to be more aggressive during the game earlier,” Cora said. “They've been amazing in that role, and the fact that they're able to bounce back and give us a start, a quality start, that's what matters.”
“Myself, Nate or Chris have been coming on later in the game,” Porcello said. “So when we start to roll around that time, I try to get up, get loose. It takes me a little bit longer than the guys that are used to getting up quickly, but other than that, it’s the same thing.”
Eovaldi, Porcello and Sale entered the month with at least some relief experience. Eovaldi pitched out of the bullpen in eight of his 156 career regular-season appearances. Porcello worked in relief for the Tigers in postseasons early in his career. Sale got his start as a setup man for the White Sox before converting to a starting role in 2012.
But starting pitchers tend to rely on fairly strict routines during the regular season, and working high-leverage relief outings between starts requires some adjustment. Eovaldi said he treats his relief outings like the side sessions he and many starters typically throw on their second day off following starts.
“We’re just preparing ourselves for this,” Eovaldi said. “Me and Rick, we’ve talked about it a little bit — we’re kind of changing our routines in the starts so we’re ready to go on Day 2. We all throw bullpens on Day 2 or Day 3, we usually throw 30 to 40 pitches, so we’re ready to go.”
“You have to be comfortable with being outside your routine at this point,” Porcello said. “You’re not going to have your normal five-day set routine where you prepare like that. You’ve got to be ready to take the ball out of the bullpen, and then when it’s your start day, you transition mentally and get ready for that.”
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