What was considered a weakness for the Boston Red Sox before the season has been holding the team together during a rough start. The Boston bullpen, a blue-collar bunch without star power, has come to the rescue nearly every game.

Boston Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes has just one save this season, but he is being used in relief in key situations regardless of the inning. Barnes has struck out 10 of 20 batters faced. AP Photo/Stephen Brashear

All this without Joe Kelly and All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel.

Kelly, who allowed one earned run in 11 1/3 innings during Boston’s playoff run last fall, signed a $25 million contract with the Dodgers. Kimbrel, who made $13 million last year, remains an unsigned free agent

Who’s left behind?

“We might not have the names but we’re pretty damn good,” said reliever Matt Barnes.

He has a point.

Boston’s top four relievers – Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Brandon Workman and Marcus Weldon – had a combined 1.11 ERA through Saturday. Throw in Heath Hembree and Hector Velazquez, and the group’s ERA was only 1.93. Barnes’s walks/hits per innings pitched (WHIP) was 0.38. Opponents were batting .050 against Workman.

They have helped buoy a team let down by its supposed strength – the starting pitching. Velazquez is helping there with an abbreviated spot start when needed (like Monday against the Orioles).

Red Sox relievers kept hearing they needed more arms in the pen.

“We never lost confidence,” said Barnes, who has struck out 10 of the 20 batters he’s faced. “Not last year. Not this year.

“Everyone in that bullpen is confident in the ability to get the job done.”

Barnes is the highest paid of the six, at $1.6 million. Only Tyler Thornburg ($1.75 million) is paid more among the Boston relievers. Injured since he was acquired from the Brewers before the 2017 season, Thornburg may still help the Red Sox. He’s better, but still up and down (5.68 ERA).

One reliever, Brian Johnson (12.71 ERA), gave up seven runs in his last appearance before going on the injured list with elbow inflammation.

What’s interesting about this year’s pen is the absence of absolute roles. Barnes was considered the likely closer and he recorded the team’s first save. But he hasn’t earned one since. Brasier has three saves.

Barnes is being used in key situations, no matter the inning. It’s an idea that’s been floated for years, but teams continued to use their “closer” to close.

Barnes appears any time in the late innings. In Friday’s win, Barnes entered in the seventh with two outs and no one on, with Boston leading 3-2. The idea was to use Barnes to finish the seventh – keeping Boston in the lead – and then to begin the eighth. Barnes got a strikeout, but on a wild pitch that put the runner on first. Barnes struck out the next batter, too.

When Boston took a 4-2 lead, Boston opted for Workman in the eighth, keeping Barnes fresh for future games.

“I’ve got a good idea of when I’m going to pitch,” Barnes said, “depending on the game, the lineup, the score – whether it’s the seventh inning, the ninth inning, the sixth inning, whatever. As long as I can do my part to help.”

Workman, one of the unsung standouts of the 2013 World Series, is looking effective. Recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2015, he began feeling healthy last year (43 appearances) and seems even better now.

“I’m throwing the ball pretty well, locating well right now,” Workman said. “Good feel for my off-speed stuff.”

The biggest concern about the bullpen is it will wear down because of the shortened, ineffective efforts from the starters.

Manager Alex Cora will have to monitor his relievers and occasionally call up reinforcements from the minors (Walden was summoned to replaced Johnson). Left-hander Bobby Poyner is in Triple-A, as is right-hander Jenrry Mejia, 29, a minor league free agent. Mejia, who pitched 113 major league games with the Mets, was serving a “lifetime” ban after three failed drug tests. He was reinstated before this season. In Pawtucket he has a 1.69 ERA (0.56 WHIP).

Portland Sea Dogs starter Darwinzon Hernandez remains a left-handed option for the Red Sox bullpen.

PUMPING THE BRAKES on the hysteria over Boston’s struggling start … oh, how Red Sox fans love their angst. Every loss is micro-analyzed. So it should be no surprise that there’s concern after a 5-10 start.

Some of Boston’s big names aren’t coming through yet. But they are big names because they usually figure these things out.

Plus, season starts are always over-emphasized. A player going hitless in five straight games in July is barely noticed, compared to starting the season that way.

Remember six years ago when Boston went 2-9 over an 11-game stretch? It was in May 2013. The Red Sox apparently recovered from that.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-7411 or:

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Twitter: @ClearTheBases


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