Boston's bullpen problem: It needs another Craig Kimbrel

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was May 7, in a quiet moment before a day game in Minnesota, and the question was about whether the Boston Red Sox would ever consider following the Cleveland Indians-Andrew Miller model and pitch closer Craig Kimbrel in the highest-leverage situation of a game even if it came up before the ninth inning.

"Well," Red Sox manager John Farrell said, the gears turning in his brain, "Andrew Miller's got the flexibility of having a closer similar to Craig Kimbrel behind him. Get us another Craig Kimbrel, and we'll certainly do that."

We bring this up now, seven weeks later, because of what happened in the eighth inning here Wednesday. With the Red Sox leading by two runs and the heart of the Kansas City Royals order coming to the plate, Farrell turned to setup man Matt Barnes, then lefty Robby Scott. Between them, they walked the bases loaded before Scott gave up a grand slam to Salvador Perez, the decisive blow in a 6-4 Royals win.

All the while, Kimbrel sat in the bullpen working on his tan.

Now, it always seems as though Farrell's seat is as hot as the scorching sun at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday, and nothing causes the masses to break out their pitchforks quite like the management of the bullpen during a late-inning meltdown.

But on this point, Farrell was firm: He wasn't using Kimbrel before the ninth inning or for more than three outs. Not after doing so three times during a recent 10-game road trip and being told later that he might have been pressing his luck with the most lights-out closer in the American League.

"Given the workload that [Kimbrel] went through, what he was feeling coming out of those three particular [multi-inning] appearances, that wasn't something that we looked to entertain," Farrell said.

Besides, the Red Sox's setup crew has pitched really, really well recently as the relievers' roles have become more defined. With Joe Kelly assigned to the seventh inning, Barnes to the eighth and Scott to any dangerous left-handed hitter due to bat in a meaningful spot, the bullpen went 26 consecutive innings without giving up a run before Heath Hembree served up a homer to Houston's George Springer last Sunday night. Not bad considering Tyler Thornburg, acquired in December to be the primary eighth-inning reliever, didn't throw a pitch before undergoing season-ending surgery this week to treat thoracic-outlet syndrome.

So, even though Kimbrel hadn't pitched in three days and the Red Sox are off Thursday, it was going to be up to Barnes and Scott to bring the lead to him, not vice versa.

The fact that it didn't happen was a matter of poor pitch execution. Barnes threw 10 pitches, only two for strikes; Scott uncorked four straight balls to lefty-hitting Eric Hosmer -- exactly the kind of hitter he's asked to get out -- before losing a nine-pitch duel with Perez. It was only the second homer Scott has given up in 36 career big league appearances.

"It's certainly not a trend," Farrell said. "That isn't something we have dealt with very often, if at all, particularly three consecutive walks to load the bases. That's not who this pitching staff has shown to be."

True. And neither Kelly, Barnes nor Scott has proven yet to be Cody Allen, the shutdown closer whose presence in the ninth inning allows Indians manager Terry Francona to use his best reliever based strictly on the situation. In 31 appearances through Thursday, Miller has pitched most often in the eighth inning but has been used as early as the sixth and as late as the ninth.

Farrell could've used Kimbrel in the eighth inning. But then he still would've needed Barnes or Scott to pitch the ninth. And Kimbrel, unlike most closers, was groomed for the ninth inning from the day he was drafted. Coming up through the Atlanta Braves farm system, Kimbrel was used exclusively to finish off games, usually one inning at a time. Of his 121 minor league appearances, 80 were one-inning stints.

Former Braves general manager Frank Wren, now the Red Sox's vice president of player personnel, recalled recently that Atlanta tried to expose Kimbrel to multi-inning work, but "we probably didn't do it with him as much as we would've liked." As a result, Wren agreed with Farrell that the Red Sox must be careful to pick their spots to call on Kimbrel before the ninth inning unless they're somehow able to find another equally dominant closer.

"I think the postseason last year everybody thought this is the way a bullpen should be used," Farrell said during the May 7 discussion of Miller and the Indians. "In a short series, yes. In 162 games, that's going to be an awfully big challenge."

A midweek game in June in Kansas City turned out to be proof of that.