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Red Sox Overcome Shortcomings to Win the ALDS


One of the great things about baseball is the fact that no matter how much you think you know what will happen, something usually occurs that comes “totally out of left field”.  Yankee-Red Sox series never seem to go as expected, and the Red Sox win in the American League Division Series was no exception.
 
Photo courtesy of  sportingnews.com
Going into the ALDS, the Yankees appeared to finally be healthy and were peaking at the right time.  I expected the Red Sox would at a minimum need J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts to continue their MVP candidate seasons, Chris Sale to overcome his shoulder issues and return to dominance, David Price to shrug off his playoff history and pitch effectively, one of the converted starters (Eovaldi, Rodriguez, or Wright) to step up and be the long-lost late inning bullpen stopper, and for Craig Kimbrel to be a lock-down closer getting four or five outs for the save.  None of these things happened, and despite that failure, the Sox still took the series in four games.  I'll admit it - I was wrong.

Martinez and Betts

Martinez appeared to rise to the occasion in his first at-bat in the series, driving a three run laser over the monster to give the Sox an early lead against JA Happ.  After that, Martinez was kept somewhat in check by the Yankees.  While he still batted .357 for the series, he failed to log another extra base hit or do serious damage with runners in scoring position.

Betts never really got on track, slashing only .188/.316/.250 after leading the league in hitting in the regular season with a slash line of .346/.438/.640.  Betts had only three hits in the series, and looked very bad striking out twice in Game 4 in key situations.  The Red Sox will need more from him if the hope to get by the Astros in the ALCS.

Sale

Sale was good, but not great.  His fastball velocity rebounded from the downward trend he demonstrated in his late season comeback from the disabled list, but he still could not reach the high-90s which are his trademark.  Instead, he craftily mixed a mid-90s fastball with his slider and changeup, changed speeds and locations for five shut-out innings before running out steam and being lifted in the sixth with the Sox up 5-0 and a pair of runners on base, both of which came around to score thanks to the ineffectiveness of the bullpen. 

Price

UGH!  After all of his starts in the postseason in which he has failed to notch a victory, can we just acknowledge that he does not have whatever it takes to pitch in the postseason.  The sample size is simply too large to think otherwise.  Let’s move on.

The Bullpen – Part One – Converted Starters

Confidence in the Red Sox overall chances in the playoffs was low because of the struggles of the bullpen, which only became worse as the Sox played out the string in September.  All the angst and fear that has surrounded the bullpen began to come true right before our eyes in Game 1 when Sale exited and Ryan Brasier, Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes bumbled through the next inning and two-thirds and the comfortable 5-0 lead quickly slipped to a 5-3 seat squirmer. 

Heading into the eighth, many expected Eduardo Rodriguez would get the nod to be the bridge to Kimbrel.  But the first big surprise of the series came when instead of E-Rod, Rick Porcello, who had been initially slated to pitch Game 3, came in to pitch the eighth.  Though he recorded only two out before giving up a single and was quickly replaced by Kimbrel, the move was an indication both that Alex Cora had no faith in his regular relievers, and that he was also willing to win by any means necessary.

Rodriguez was brought in to Game 2 with the Red Sox trailing 3-1 in the sixth and bailed Workman out of a jam with two runners on.  As promising as that may have been, he forfeited all of it in the seventh when he gave up a single and a walk in front of a three run blast by Sanchez that put the game out of reach and effectively relinquished Rodriguez to mop-up duty.

Big surprise number two came in the eighth inning of Game 4 when Cora went for it all and brought in Sale to pitch in relief.  Sale got three quick outs to send the game to the ninth with a 4-1 Red Sox lead.  Although the performers were not what was expected, the results were there and in both cases set the Red Sox up for the victory.  Unfortunately….

The Bullpen – Part Two – Kimbrel

Two converted starters were able to get the ball to Kimbrel for a save opportunity, and both times Kimbrel was able to notch the save.  Mission accomplished?  On paper, yes.  In reality, near disaster.  With a two run lead in Game 1, Kimbrel allowed a lead-off homer to Judge to cut the lead to one.  To his credit, he blew away the next three batters to end the drama, but it was a harbinger of things to come.

In Game 4, with a three run lead and the series clincher riding on it, Kimbrel imploded.  He could not find the plate with his fastball and once the Yankees realized that, laid off his breaking pitches.  Four pitch walks to Judge and Voit, sandwiched around a Gregorius single and a Stanton strikeout (another playoff puddle) loaded the bases.  A hit batter and a sacrifice fly from Sanchez, who just missed hitting a walk-off, cut the lead to just one.  Kimbrel only escaped on a nice play by Eduardo Nunez on a topper to third and stretch by Steve Pearce at first which, after review, nipped Torres at first to end the game, the series, and the heart palpitation of Red Sox Nation.

What Went Right - Part One - Nathan Eovaldi

I don’t know what happens when Eovaldi faces the Yankees.  It may be revenge against his former team, or something else entirely, but he has dominated the Yankees this year.  His start in Game 3 shut down the Yankees after their power display in Game 2, but his performance was overshadowed by the offensive explosion of 16 runs.  The decision to go with Eovaldi in Game 3, bypassing Porcello, proved to be exactly what the Red Sox needed to regain the momentum in the series.  Which leads to the next topic.



What Went Right - Part Two- Alex Cora

Despite cruising to 108 wins in the regular season and an American League East Championship, many questioned if the rookie manager was ready for the playoff spotlight.  He quickly proved that he was up to the task when he went out of the box to use Porcello out of the bullpen in Game 1, and again when started Eovaldi on the mound and inserted Rafael Devers and Brock Holt into the lineup in Game 3 to face Severino, despite Devers’ and Holt’s combined 1 for 27 history against the Yankee ace.  Devers had a pair of hits and an RBI, and we all know what Holt accomplished.  These moves helped switch the momentum after a disappointing loss in Game 2, and fueled the offensive explosion that resulted in a 16-1 thumping.


Less heralded, but equally noteworthy, was the switch from Sandy Leon to Christian Vazquez behind the plate.  Though Leon is outstanding defensively, and has been the personal catcher for both Sale and Porcello, Leon offensive struggles have been historic ion the second half.  Vazquez is a minimal drop-off defensively, and while he has also not had a good season offensively, he is an upgrade from Leon at the bat.  Vazquez contributed a pair of hits and an RBI in Game 3, and a Yankee Stadium homer in Game 4 which proved to be the eventual game winner. 

Cora is taking risks, and they’ve been paying off.  The continued use of starters pitching out of the bullpen is a risky move early in the playoffs.  He was fortunate to close the Red Sox closed the series in four games and did not have to bring Sale back to pitch Game 5. 

Memorable Moments

Two items from Game 2 that may have been overshadowed in the loss was the effective relief pitching efforts from Brasier and Joe Kelly.  Kelly may have faced the scorn of Red Sox fans even more than Price this season, but he turned in two and one third scoreless innings in relief of Price, keeping the Red Sox in the game.  Brasier followed with another scoreless inning which was memorable when he showed some grit in demanding Sanchez to “get the f@(% in the box” to hit and followed it up by blowing him away with a fastball to end the ending.  A couple more moments like that, and there may be Ryan Brasier Fight Club shirts popping up around Fenway.

Look Ahead

Now that the Red Sox have exorcised their first round demons, it is on to the ALCS to face the defending champion Astros.  This Astros team is loaded, but like the Red Sox, is somewhat lacking in the bullpen.  Cora knows the team well, having been their bench coach last season, but it’s going to take more than that for the Red Sox to get to the World Series.  What that will be exactly, I have no clue.  I was wrong about the Yankee Series - and I’m okay with that.

Follow Bill on Twitter @BTravers_BSoT.

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