October 5th, 2021
Had ‘Em the Whole Way
Alex Cora likes to say that the playoff push at the end of the season is fun. Maybe it is fun for people that play and coach at the Major League level. After all, you don’t get that far in sports if you are the type of person that gets nervous in the face of a high leverage situation. One thing that I’ve known about myself since little league is that I am the type of person that gets nervous in big spots during big games. And for that reason, this past weekend was most definitely not fun for me.
After the high-wire act the Red Sox bullpen performed on Friday night and the ninth inning rally/near collapse of Saturday, Sunday looked like it should have been a walk in the park. All the Red Sox had to do was win their last game of the season in order to secure the top American League wild card spot. If the Red Sox and/or the Yankees lost on Sunday, numerous chaotic, fun possibilities could have resulted in up to four different teams being involved in tiebreaker play-in games. But Boston and New York were in control of their own destinies. If the Red Sox and the Yankees won, they would meet in the American League Wild Card Game Tuesday night in Fenway Park.
Oh, what fun!
Imagine putting your life savings down on red for a single spin of roulette, only the ball continues to ricochet around the wheel for three hours and forty-six minutes. That’s how fun Sunday was for me.
Is this an illogical, overly dramatic analogy to make? Absolutely. I would not be in the poor house if the Red Sox had to participate in a play-in game (or two) to earn their way into the Wild Card Game. I won’t even be in the poorhouse if they lose on Tuesday. But October Red Sox baseball is not a creature of logic, patience, or rationality. It’s a beast of knee-jerk reactions, pessimism, and dejection.
How was your Sunday?
Mine started off, believe it or not, with a sunny ring of optimism. Chris Sale, the most talented Red Sox pitcher since Pedro Martinez, took the hill for Game 162. The Washington Nationals’ starting pitcher was a guy named Joan who had never pitched an inning in the Major Leagues. This matchup had the makings of an easy win to punch Boston’s ticket to the playoffs.
Looking back now, I can’t believe I was stupid enough to think that the game would play out the way I expected. After all, this is the 2021 Red Sox. Sale dominating the weak Washington lineup while the Boston bats lit up the inexperienced rookie would be like a David Lynch movie following a cohesive narrative structure for two hours.
Of course Sale struggled with his command and couldn’t make it out of the third inning. Of course Joan Adon’s 97-mph fastball and shockingly sharp curveball baffled Red Sox hitters for five innings. Of course the Red Sox would need to use seven different pitchers, including five that were starters when the season began. Of course J.D. Martinez sprained his ankle on the second base bag while jogging out to right field in the middle of the fifth inning. Of course the Red Sox trailed 5-1 going into the seventh inning as the Blue Jays slaughtered the Orioles and the Yankees pulled out a dramatic victory over the Rays.
It couldn’t have played out any other way.
Finding a Way
I said the other day that the only way the Red Sox could possibly make any noise in the playoffs would be to simply out fight and out grind the opposition. Every other team in the playoffs right now is more talented than they are. Their lineup is top heavy, their rotation is full of question marks, and their bullpen is a straight up horror show. Nothing has come easy for this team in the last two months, and I can’t remember the last time they played a complete baseball game free of stupid mistakes.
Take Sunday’s game, for example. Trailing 2-1 in the top of the fourth following Yaz-ael Devers’ first home run of the game, Alex Verdugo grounded a single that died directly between the left and center fielders. Rather than be conservative and stop at first or make a mad dash for second, Verdugo sprinted past first before changing his mind and stopping halfway between first and second. He essentially did the one thing you should never do in that situation, and he did it in a game with severe playoff implications. The Nats ran him down for the second out of the inning, a potential rally was snuffed out, and I screamed into a pillow.
Because this is 2021, Verdugo proceeded to collect two more hits in his next two plate appearances, including the ridiculously clutch two-run double in the seventh that tied the game at 5.
Red Sox pitching then got their act together for the first time all day. Garrett Whitlock rode in from the bullpen like Lancelot, showing zero rust from his previous ten days on the Injured List to pitch a 1-2-3 seventh. Then Alex Cora threw a pair of middle fingers at his remaining relivers and used starters Eduardo Rodriguez and Nick Pivetta for an inning each to close out this game … a game that will from this day forward be known to Red Sox fans as the day that Rafael Devers became the guy.
I wrote earlier this season that the Boston Red Sox were J.D. Martinez’s team. He sets the offensive tone, and many of the players lean on him for guidance on their swings and overall approach to hitting. But with Martinez and Xander Bogaerts suffering long-term slumps this season that were a big part of Boston’s second-half offensive woes, Devers has been the one powerhouse that has stayed on track pretty much all season. The stakes for Sunday’s game were the highest of the year, and Rafael Devers basically planted his bat through the pitcher’s mound at Nationals Park and hung his jersey from it to wave triumphantly in the Washington breeze.
Devers’ numbers from Sunday’s game read like the numbers Manny Ramirez used to put up when I played MVP Baseball ’05 on the Rookie setting. He was 4 for 5 with 2 home runs, 4 RBI, and 3 runs scored. Both of his homers were missiles to dead center field, and the game winner in the ninth was a borderline religious experience.
He finishes 2021 with a .279 batting average, .890 OPS, 38 home runs, 113 RBI, 101 runs scored, and 62 walks. The walks are the most impressive stat to me, since this kid used to swing at everything when he first got to the big leagues. Even his defense has incrementally improved from putrid to almost mediocre. After his game winning home run off Justin Verlander in the clinching game of the 2018 ALCS, Sunday’s ninth inning blast was the biggest hit of his career. We already knew that Raffy had as much raw hitting talent as anyone in the game, but Sunday was yet another progression in his career. He’s not just a great hitter. He’s a great hitter with the will to carry his team when they need it most.
So here we are, on the brink of a historic wild card game. The Red Sox and Yankees have met in only three winner-take-all games in the fifty thousand years these two teams have been in existence. The Yankees won the one-game AL East tiebreaker in 1978 (Bucky F’in Dent) and game 7 of the 2003 ALCS (Aaron F’in Boone). The Red Sox won the most recent affair, game 7 of the legendary 2004 ALCS (Johnny F’in Damon). If Boston wants to even the all-time head-to-head record at 2-2, they are going to have to do it the same way they won their last three games.
The problem is that the Red Sox had to scratch and claw to win those last three games against an awful team. Red Sox wins against good teams have been few and far between these last couple months, and the Yankees appear to have the advantage on Tuesday despite the game taking place in Fenway Park.
Gerrit Cole will be starting for the Yankees. He’s an elite pitcher on a $300 million contract, and he was a 2021 Cy Young candidate until he pitched himself out of contention in September. He’s been mediocre for weeks now, but he did manage to defeat the Red Sox in the first game of the Yankee sweep at Fenway a couple weeks ago when the last several thousand bandwagon Sox fans finally jumped ship. He’s pitched well in playoff games before, and he will not be intimidated by the big game atmosphere.
Nathan Eovaldi will be hurling for the Sox, and after Sale’s start in Sunday’s game I am thrilled about that. Eovaldi has the liveliest arm on Boston’s roster at this point, and he too is no stranger to stepping up in big games. Nate was downright heroic throughout Boston’s 2018 championship run, both starting and relieving on short rest as Cora cobbled together wins using an unorthodox pitching staff with several holes.
That 2018 Red Sox team, however, was a freight train. The 2021 version is a Camaro with two flat tires and the check engine light flashing. The offense is top heavy and the bullpen is a hot mess. Don’t be surprised if Garrett Whitlock is the only relief pitcher that Cora uses Tuesday. Everybody’s spikes are on in an elimination game, so I expect that Cora would use starters Rodriguez, Pivetta, and even Sale before banking the season on the arms of Adam Ottavino, Hansel Robles, Austin Davis, Hirokazu Sawamura, Darwinzon Hernandez, or (gulp) Matt Barnes.
The Yankees have an enormous advantage in the bullpen, despite the fact that their big money closer has blown more big games in his career than the entire Boston bullpen combined. Aroldis Chapman is known for two things: throwing hard and peeing on himself in October. If the Yankees do have a late lead Tuesday night, let’s hope that manager Aaron Boone is as soft as we all think he is and summons the flame-throwing lefty.
This ain’t the Bronx Bombers of the 2000s coming into Fenway Park on Tuesday. DJ LeMahieu is on the Injured List, as is Luke Voit. It’s a boom or bust lineup that sucks at hitting singles and manufacturing runs. In my opinion, you need to pitch around Aaron Judge and take your chances with the other guys. Giancarlo Stanton was a menace in that last series at Fenway Park, but he’s a streaky hitter who is as well known for his prolonged droughts as he is for his murderous tears. He’s 0 for his last 7, so let’s hope that he stays cooled off for at least one more game.
Lefties Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo can hurt you, which is why I would deploy Chris Sale to pitch to that part of the order when they come up in the final third of the game. Judge is the one guy that you cannot let beat you in a one-game playoff. If he sees any strikes with men in scoring position Tuesday, I’m sticking my head in a toilet until the at bat is over.
The status of J.D. Martinez is worrisome, but there’s no way I see him missing out on this game. His bad ankle has made one of Alex Cora’s toughest decisions a lot easier, since J.D. clearly must DH now. Beyond that, Cora’s most difficult call is deciding which typically everyday player sits. In this instance, I believe that Alex Verdugo should be on the bench Tuesday.
As scary as the thought is, Bobby Dalbec is the best first baseman on the Red Sox. You need to field a defensive alignment that will minimize the risk of stupid errors, which rules out Kyle Schwarber at first. Verdugo can cover some ground in the outfield, but his tendency to make ill-timed leaps and dives could be too costly in a one-game playoff. His offensive production has also been way down the entire second half of the season, with a slugging percentage of just .389 and an on-base percentage of a meager .307 in the last month. He also gives the Sox a third lefty option (beyond Travis Shaw and Jarren Duran) to pinch hit late in the catcher’s spot against Chad Green, Michael King, Luis Severino, or Jonathan Loaisiga. I have no doubt that Verdugo will have his opportunity to contribute.
Bottom line, the Red Sox need a patient approach at the plate for this game. They can’t swing at too many first pitches like they have so many times this year, or Cole will exploit it all night.
If the Red Sox win Tuesday, it will be due to a big hit in a close and late situation. There’s always an unlikely hero in games like these, so I’m tripling down on Christian Arroyo. He’s only had 15 at bats in the second half of the season, but his game is electricity personified and he has come through in big spots so many times this year despite his limited availability.
For the record, I think the wild card playoff spot should be decided in a two-out-of-three game series. But you can’t knock the anxiety and excitement of watching your team walk into a do-or-die playoff game against their archenemy.
Should be fun.