The Red Sox season will be over in a week, and their third last place finish in four years is the most likely outcome. With the Chaim Bloom experiment now a thing of the past and Fenway Sports Group moving on to bigger and better (more like quicker and impulsiv-er) things, I felt that today would be a good time to relive the last time things looked really good on the field for the Boston Red Sox.
A mere two years ago, the Sox looked like a team on a meteoric rise to sustained success. In the midst of a playoff run during a rebuild year where very few fans expected them to even sniff October, the team and front office both appeared to be way ahead of the curve. While the organization would make huge strides over the next two seasons, the on-field Major League product has been mediocre at best ever since.
Before we set our eyes on what should be a vastly improved Boston Red Sox team in 2024, let’s go back to October 15, 2021: the last time we experienced anything close to championship vibes at Fenway Park.
October 15, 2021
Remember when the Boston Red Sox were predicted by most to finish the 2021 season in fourth place? Remember when they were swept at Fenway by the lowly Baltimore Orioles to start the season, causing so many “fans” to decide that it was time for the Chaim Bloom experiment to come to an end? Remember when they lost four of six before the All-Star break, showing that they had played over their heads the entire first half and had just begun their descent out of contention? Remember the epic failure of a trade deadline, when Bloom refused to sell off any valuable minor league assets and secured nothing but an injured outfielder to play first base and two middling relievers to aid the team’s drive towards October? Remember when they lost two-out-of-three in Baltimore, handing over the two wild card spots to the Yankees and Blue Jays?
Don’t worry if your forgot, because I’m here to remind you all of every single instance when you counted this team out.
This team. This manager. This general manager. They all showed us just how little ordinary people know about putting together a winning baseball team.
Kyle Schwarber. Kike Hernandez. Alex Verdugo. Garrett Whitlock. Nick Pivetta. These players all have three things in common.
- Many Red Sox fans didn’t give a rats behind about any of them until two weeks ago.
- They were all low risk acquisitions by Bloom, the notorious cheapskate hell bent on turning the Boston Red Sox into Tampa North.
- They have all been indispensable in this unlikely (to some) playoff run that has landed the Red Sox back into the American League Championship Series for the seventh time in the past eighteen years.
Sending the Yankees Home
Is there anything more gratifying than ending the New York Yankees’ season? It’s not just watching the players realize that they’ve failed. That’s just half of it. The other half is watching the fans realize that they have no personally meaningful games left to enjoy until next April. The ESPN camera crew did a splendid job of panning the Fenway crowd and lingering on the faces of many beaten down, pinstripe-clad degenerates that had just witnessed their $324 million ace get smoked and their two-man lineup get outclassed by a superior team.
It was eight-year Sox veteran and de facto captain Xander Bogaerts that delivered the news in the first inning of the American League Wild Card Game: Gerrit Cole did not have it.
When Bogaerts’ two-run home run landed in the center field bleachers, it was like the entire city of Boston jammed an icepick deep into the belly of the Yankees organization. This would be no epic shootout or quick, merciful bullet to the back of the head. The Yankees would lie in a pathetic heap and bleed out slowly over the next three hours and thirteen minutes as the Red Sox stood over their corpses and smiled.
The game was by no means in the bag after Bogaerts went deep, but we all felt the Yankees’ shoulders sag when Schwarber, the most impactful trade deadline acquisition in all of Major League Baseball, drilled a neck-high, 97-mph Cole fastball about 926 feet to put the Sox up 3-0 and send the Yankee ace to the showers.
The remainder of this affair was like a giant celebration for Red Sox believers that never bought into the negativity or one-dimensional arguments that insisted the Sox were doomed. Nathan Eovaldi returned to the heroic form that he demonstrated throughout the 2018 postseason, going 5.1 innings with 8 Ks, 0 BBs, 1 ER, and scattering 4 hits that included an Anthony Rizzo solo homer that sports radio hacks would have waxed poetic about for the next six months had the Yankees managed to come back and win the game.
But they didn’t come back and win. It’s not 1999 anymore. The Yankees are no longer the bullies that cruise the schoolyard stealing the lunch money from smaller, weaker kids in wool hats and mittens.
No, sir. This is the 21st century, where the Yankees bow down to the boys on Landsdowne Street, who have dominated them since the George W. Bush administration.
Despite a monstrous performance from Giancarlo Stanton, who would have had three home runs if the game had been played in any other Major League stadium, the Yankees mustered next to nothing. Just like in the other 162 games of the season, they were incapable of scoring unless the ball left the yard. They only managed one threat, which came in the sixth inning after Eovaldi surrendered the Rizzo homer and an infield single to Aaron Judge.
Alex Cora brought in Ryan Brasier to relieve Eovaldi, who was still dealing and, in my opinion, perfectly capable of finishing the sixth and probably the seventh as well. I was terrified that Stanton would immediately tie the game, a potential momentum swing that could have completely changed the narratives of the 2021 season for both these teams.
Stanton did pulverize Brasier’s first offering, but luckily the Wall giveth and the Wall taketh away. Stanton missed a game-tying homer by inches and the ball caromed past the defensively clueless Verdugo. However, Kike Hernandez backed him up and fired a perfect one-hopper to Bogaerts, whose relay to the plate was a strike that nailed Judge at home by about ten feet.
Yankees fans like to blame third base coach Phil Nevin for sending Judge home on the play, and I can’t really disagree with them. But I feel like they are letting Judge off the hook. Judge gave up on the idea of scoring as soon as the ball hit the wall, clearly slowing down as he rounded second and content to coast into third with one out and the tying run at second base. That’s not how you win playoff games, Aaron. Maybe if you had more experience at, you know, actually winning playoff games, you’d realize that.
Although I did just knock Verdugo’s fielding, which is borderline atrocious, I owe him an apology for deciding that he should be on the bench for the wild card game. I couldn’t fathom J.D. Martinez missing a playoff game against the Yankees at Fenway Park, and Verdugo’s lack of pop in the second half and poor defense made him my pick to ride the pine.
Well, I am clearly no Alex Cora. Martinez’ ankle injury left him too hobbled to compete, and his absence slotted Verdugo in left field, the number-5 hole in the lineup, and a special place in Red Sox history.
Verdugo answered Rizzo’s sixth-inning homer with an RBI double in the bottom half of the inning to pad the lead some more. An inning later, he put the game out of reach with a two-run single that sent Cole, Judge, Aaron Boone, Aroldis Chapman, and the rest of the pinstriped puds to Travelocity to book their plane tickets home.
Tanner Houck and Hansel Robles were nails in the seventh and eighth innings, and Yankee castoff Garrett Whitlock continued his incredible rookie season by locking the game down despite serving up one of Giancarlo Stanton’s patented garbage-time solo home runs.
It’s true, the good guys can still win in this day and age.
Batman defeated the Joker.
Starling blew away Buffalo Bill.
The Red Sox sent the Yankees home.
The Real American League East Champs
The Tampa Bay Rays won the American League East by a comfortable margin, finishing eight games ahead of the Red Sox and Yankees and nine games ahead of the Blue Jays. Just as they had done all season long, the talking heads brushed off the idea of the Red Sox winning their ALDS matchup against Tampa and assumed that the Rays would squash them en route to the ALCS.
What so many people overlooked is the fact that building a team for success in a 162-game season and building a team for success in a postseason series are two entirely different things.
The Rays won 100 games this year by riding a versatile pitching staff of flamethrowers and a lineup full of athletes. All of their pitchers can either start or come out of the bullpen, and all of their position players can hit the long ball, run, and play good defense. For several years now, Tampa Bay management has shown us that this is a recipe for success during a six-month grind of peaks, valleys, daily ballgames, and unavoidable injuries.
You want to know the big difference between managing a team for the long season and managing a team for a short playoff series?
In October, there is no next week. You don’t rest your best players for a game here and a game there, you don’t use your seventh and eighth best relievers to keep your top arms from burning out, and you don’t test out unproven players in high-leverage situations to see how they perform under pressure.
During the season, you need to manage your roster to hold up over the course of a six-month grind. The Rays are a deep, fundamentally sound, plug-and-play baseball team that does not make many mistakes and is engineered to score and prevent a ton of runs. If they lose one player, they have two other guys waiting in the wings that can do the job just about as well as the first option. Even the June loss of Tyler Glasnow, their phenomenal ace, didn’t slow them down for long.
Once the regular season ends, baseball is no longer a battle of your 26 guys against their 26 guys. You basically trim the fat and essentially limit your options to three or four starters, three or four relievers, and nine or ten position players. The second-tier guys are there if needed, but October baseball is really about one team’s best players against the other team’s best players.
I won’t go so far as to say that the Rays were nothing but smoke and mirrors, but just look at how the ALDS played out.
The postmortem discussion following Tampa’s 5-0 Game One victory was, as usual, all doom and gloom for many Red Sox fans. Rays rookie Shane McClanahan threw five shutout innings, and the Rays bullpen blanked the Sox for four more. Eduardo Rodriguez was lousy, giving up 2 ER on 2 hits and 2 BBs while retiring only five batters before getting the hook.
Nelson Cruz and postseason monster Randy Arozarena both went deep, and the Red Sox were never really in the game. Arozarena even stole home against Boston reliever Josh Taylor, an embarrassingly brazen coup de gras that seemed to confirm the suspicions of many Red Sox doubters and MLB analysts. But if you take a closer look into that game, you’ll see that what really happened was far less academic.
The Rays scored 5 runs on 6 hits and walked 4 times, an impressive offensive display that had them chomping on popcorn in the dugout and, for some reason, feeling like they had this series in the bag. The Red Sox, however, had nine hits, very few of which were cheapies, and a whole bunch of loud outs. They smoked numerous grounders right at infielders, particularly second-baseman Brandon Lowe, including double plays from Bobby Dalbec and Hunter Renfroe.
The Sox also struck a few warning track flyouts that missed the barrels of their bats by millimeters. Dalbec, in particular, had a lot of tough luck, nailing three balls with exit velocities of over 100-mph without recording a hit. One particular two-on, two-out lineout beamed directly into the glove of third baseman Yandy Diaz, killing a potential rally that could have gotten the Red Sox back in the game had it gone a few feet further in any direction.
Such is baseball … that beautiful, unfair, complicated wench of a sport.
In short, Shane McClanahan did not dominate the Red Sox in any way during Game One. He pitched pretty well, but Boston’s hitters had him well scouted and brought their hitting shoes to Tropicana Field that night. The baseball gods simply weren’t in their favor, an outcome that corrected itself over the next few nights.
The spreadsheets compiled by the nerds in the Tampa Bay front office landed another rookie, Shane Baz, on the mound for Game Two against Red Sox ace and former Cy Young Award winner Chris Sale. It was a mismatch on paper, and if all you looked at was the final score, you’d think the game played out just as you’d have expected based on the names of the pitchers. What actually occurred, however, was far different.
Sale got pounded, recording only three outs while giving up five runs including a grand slam from irrelevant nobody Jordan Luplow. Tampa was ready for Chris Sale, and they punished him like he’d come home four hours after curfew. What the Rays were not ready for, however, was Tanner Houck.
That’s right, another Red Sox rookie brought it in his first postseason. In 5 innings of relief, Houck gave up 1 run on 2 hits while striking out 5 and walking none. On the other side, a collection of plug-and-play Rays pitchers served up home runs to Bogaerts, Verdugo, Hernandez, Martinez, Rafael Devers, Fred Lynn, Todd Benzinger, and Rick Burleson. That’s right, an outstanding Red Sox pitcher whose workload was strictly managed during the regular season was unchained in the playoffs and outperformed the crew of jabronies that was deployed by the team that won 100 games.
Games Three and Four were instant Fenway classics that ended in Red Sox walk-off wins, one of which took 13 innings to complete. Did the Red Sox outclass and dominate the Rays in these contests? Clearly not. They were battles of attrition that fans like me dream about seeing in the postseason. But to see the difference in those two games, all you need to do is look at which players produced for each team.
Aside from Luplow’s grand slam in the blowout, the Rays had to rely on Randy Arozarena, Wander Franco, and Austin Meadows for an inordinate amount of their offense throughout the ALDS. Nelson Cruz, Kevin Kiermayer, and Yandy Diaz each came up with a big hit here and there, but when the bottom half of the Tampa order stepped in against the Red Sox’ best arms, they were largely overmatched.
Whitlock and Nick Pivetta became Boston folk heroes by eating up the last 5.1 innings of Game Three, biding time until the Boston bats could deliver the game-winning knock. Hunter Renfroe, and Christian Arroyo delivered big hits from the bottom of the order, whereas Tampa’s seven through nine hitters could not compete with the horses that Boston matched up against them. Then, in the bottom of the 13th, Christian Vazquez made the inevitable official.
Eduardo Rodriguez corrected his issues from Game One by tossing five effective innings in Game Four before a Wander Franco two-run homer off Houck started the Rays on the comeback trail, leading to four innings of chewing my fingernails and pacing around my living room until Tampa finally tied the game in the eighth.
But then Whitlock saved the day once again, putting out the flames of an eighth-inning, second and third, no out Tampa threat that allowed the bottom of Boston’s order to, once again, get it done when it mattered most. A single by Vazquez and a bunt … yes, a glorious, soul-lifting bunt from Arroyo, followed by an infield single from Travis Shaw set the stage for Kike Hernandez’ sacrifice fly to walk off with the game and a berth to the ALCS.
Were the Rays a deep team? Absolutely. But they were not playoff deep.
Having 26 good players can get you far during the regular season. But to win in the postseason, you need about seven or eight really good players and another eight or nine good players to compliment them. The effectiveness of the ten players at the back of your roster means very little in October, since those guys will barely see the field. This is the issue that puts small market teams at such a disadvantage in the playoffs.
Everyone likes a bargain, and Moneyball was a nice little movie. But professional sports are about winning championships, and the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s of the world still have not managed to steal a single championship from the big spenders in the 21st century.
Enter the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros, a pair of big spenders that have been to this dance quite a few times in recent memory. Despite the miraculous journey of this “overachieving” Red Sox team, there is no true underdog in this year’s ALCS. Regardless of the realities of this year’s preseason expectations and regular season rollercoaster, this year features no real Cinderella team that baseball fans can collectively rally behind. All we have are two great teams with great players that are about to put on a great show for us all. Too bad we will have to settle for that.
The Red Sox are 15-4 under Alex Cora in the postseason. And when their relentless offensive attack and revamped bullpen prevail over the terrifying, crooked Houston Astros, I’ll be back to remind you all, once again, about yet another time when you all doubted Bloom, Cora, and this team of fighters.