It would be irresponsible to try and blame the collapses of the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves on any one or two individuals. Collapses of these proportions – Boston led the American League wild-card race by 9 games on Sept 3; Atlanta had an 8 1/2-game advantage on Sept. 6 – don’t happen without contributions from the entire roster.Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel.But I was curious about the back end of these games, where both the Red Sox and Braves had been dominant for most of the season.
Boston, which had an 82-51 record on Aug. 27 and was 8-21 the rest of the way, usually gave the baseball to Daniel Bard in the eighth inning and Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth. For the most part, that formula worked.
Bard didn’t allow a run in 24 appearances in June and July. Not a run. And Papelbon came to late September having not allowed a run in 21 previous outings.
In his last four, tough, Papelbon was touched up for seven hits and four runs in 4.2 innings, blowing two save opportunities including the most costly one Wednesday night against the Baltimore Orioles. After dominating the first two Orioles hitters, Papelbon allowed a pair of doubles and a game-winning single.
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Bard had a 2.03 ERA going into September and had allowed only 35 hits in 62 innings, striking out 63. Opposing teams almost never got to him.
But in 11 September games, Bard had a 10.64 ERA. He allowed 14 runs – 13 earned – in 11 innings. He walked nine. He went from dominant to doormat.
In Atlanta, the late-inning bullpen woes were just as pronounced.
For the Braves, left-hander Jonny Venters was entrusted with the eighth inning most of the season. Then hard-throwing right-hander Craig Kimbrel took care of the ninth.
They, along with seventh-inning specialist Eric O’Flaharty, made the covers of magazines. O’Flaharty kept right on pitching well through September. The same can’t be said for Venters and Kimbrel.
On Aug. 26, Venters had a nearly invisible 1.10 ERA. In 73.2 innings he had given up only 38 hits and nine earned runs, walking 32 and striking out 81. He was the nastiest southpaw reliever in baseball.
Then he became Santa Claus. In his final 15 appearances, Venters had a 5.65 ERA. He allowed 15 hits and nine earned runs in 14.1 innings. He also compounded his problems by issuing 11 walks. Venters, clearly, was pitching on fumes during the season’s final five weeks and he had to pitch out of a bases-loaded eighth inning jam against the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday night to preserve a 3-2 lead.
A lead Kimbrel couldn’t hold.
A pitcher with 47 saves, a pitcher who limited opposing hitters to a .178 average, allowed a game-tying run in the ninth inning, continuing a late-season slide.
Kimbrel pitched in 38 consecutive games without allowing a run until Sept. 9, when his problems began. In his final eight appearances of the 2011 season, Kimbrel allowed seven hits and six runs in 7.1 innings. Before that stretch he had an ERA of 1.55. In those eight games – the most important games of his season – Kimbrel’s ERA was 7.37.
So here are the stark numbers involving the lock-down relief pitchers from the two teams with historical late season collapses.
In their combined final 38 appearances, here are the numbers for Venters, Kimbrel, Bard and Papelbon:
37.1 IP 40 hits 33 runs 32 earned runs 25 walks 45 strikeouts 7.72 ERA
For perspective, here are the combined numbers for those pitchers in their first 259 combined appearances:
265 IP 157 hits 56 runs 52 earned runs 84 walks 339 strikeouts 1.77 ERA
And finally, their combined numbers for the 2011 season:
302.1 IP 197 hits 89 runs 84 earned runs 109 walks 384 strikeouts 2.50 ERA
Interesting numbers. Baseball numbers lend themselves toward being interpreted a variety of ways. But it’s obvious late-inning bullpen woes were integral to the collapses of both the Red Sox and Braves. Getting outs late in games, as difficult as it is, does tend to be more consistent than most other aspects of baseball. So if you’re looking for the place to start when trying to explain why Boston and Atlanta are sitting at home this postseason, start with the supposedly reliable guys in the pen. Turns out, when needed most their reliability disappeared.