On Tuesday, the Boston Red Sox will reach the midway point of the 2019 season. In many ways, we have very little idea how this season will play out. After a brutal start, the Red Sox have improved since the end of April and are back in the American League playoff race.

Is the improvement enough? The results are still inconclusive. We saw that again this weekend when the Red Sox dropped a series to the lowly Blue Jays. Things were moving along nicely Saturday afternoon. The Red Sox held a 6-0 lead and the first weekend of the summer of ’19 was off to a fine start at the ballpark.

All that changed when the bullpen collapsed, losing the game 8-7. At one point Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier – the two men Manager Alex Cora expected to shoulder the load in late-game situations this year – combined to walk four consecutive batters allowing the go-ahead and winning runs to score.

The stunning loss seemed to carry over into Sunday, when the Red Sox sleepwalked through a lackluster 6-1 loss, falling below .500 for the season at Fenway Park.

“We’re still far from being where we’re supposed to be,” said Cora after losing two of three to the Blue Jays.

Cora was talking about the whole team, but he could’ve been talking about the bullpen.

Boston Red Sox reliever Ryan Brasier already has thrown more innings this year than he did all of last season. AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King

Brasier has already thrown more innings this season than he did in all of 2018. Barnes, one of only four AL pitchers to appear in 60 or more games and throw 60 or more innings in each of the last three seasons, is on pace to appear in a career-high number of games.

It’s pretty clear that Barnes needs some rest. Working for the second straight day on Saturday, he gave up three runs on two hits and two walks while recording just two outs. When pitching without a day of rest this season he has posted an 8.64 ERA. With at least one day of rest between starts his ERA is 2.19.

On Saturday, Barnes was asked if he can continue to handle this type of workload. “We’ll find out,” said Barnes.

The Red Sox have suffered from a lack of a long reliever. Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez shared that role last season, but Johnson is now filling in for the injured Nathan Eovaldi as a starter and Velzaquez is on the injured list. Steven Wright could potentially fill that role, but he has missed the first half of the season while serving an 80-game suspension for a violation of baseball’s policy on performance enhancing drugs.

The 80th and final game of Wright’s suspension was Monday. The good news is that he had additional time to help his knee recover from the same knee surgery that has bedeviled Dustin Pedroia.

Under baseball’s PED rules, Wright is ineligible to pitch in the postseason. But he could be a huge boost in helping them to get there. The Red Sox bullpen is listing, and the knuckleballer could help prop it up in the second half of the season. So would the return of Velazquez and Eovaldi – the latter allowing Johnson to go back to the bullpen.

Johnson, Velazquez and Wright will most likely serve middle-inning and set-up roles out of Cora’s bullpen. While they may not pitch at the end of games, they will allow Cora to ease off the usage for pitchers like Barnes and Brasier.

The Red Sox came into this season believing they were good enough to repeat as champions. A lot of fans thought the bullpen would keep them from achieving that goal. They’ve tried to create a “bullpen by committee” approach, but the committee has not assembled as hoped. Whether it’s Wright, an acquisition from outside the organization, or a call-up from the minors, the Red Sox clearly need help.

For now, Cora put it in simple terms.

“We need to get better,” he said.  “That’s it.”

Tom Caron is a studio host for the Red Sox broadcast on NESN. His column appears in the Portland Press Herald on Tuesdays.


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