Swing along with Mitch

2019-03-30 MitchMoreland.jpg

Mitch Moreland—two three-run homers in back-to-back pinch hitting assignments a mere five months apart.

Before Friday night, Mitch Moreland was last seen pinch hitting in Game Four of the World Series. With his Red Sox down 4-0 in the top of the seventh in Dodger Stadium, pinch hitting for Matt Barnes. And, hitting a three-run homer about half way up the right field bleachers off Ryan Madson, pulling the Red Sox to within a run in a game they’d end up winning, 9-6.

After Friday night, you might be forgiven if you think team advance scouts begin re-editing their books to advise pitching staffs not to even think about letting the Red Sox land in a position to pinch hit with Moreland with two on. If any teams are still running kangaroo courts in their clubhouses, the fines may go up if Moreland’s allowed to keep this up.

Because there he was in Safeco Field, facing Hunter Strickland, a newly minted Mariner who’s been known to surrender a long ball or three since his years with the Giants. Pinch hitting in the top of the ninth for Christian Vasquez, who’d struck long in the top of the eighth, pulling the Red Sox to within two of tying. After spending the previous three innings in the tunnels loosening up just in case, since he doesn’t start against lefthanded pitchers.

Strickland already looked shaky as it was. He fought shoulder tightness during his turn, surrendering a leadoff double to Rafael Devers and watching Devers take third when Mariners catcher Omar Narvaez lost the handle on a fastball, before hitting pinch hitter Blake Swihart with a pitch but escaping disaster temporarily when Jackie Bradley, Jr.’s grounder to first was thrown home to nail Devers at the plate.

Out to the plate came Moreland with first and second. Two balls later, down the pipe came Strickland’s two-seamer and over the right field fence Moreland hit it on a high line. Making it 7-6, Red Sox, which held for the win when Barnes, for whom Moreland hit so memorably in Game Four, rid himself of the Mariners quickly on an inning-opening ground out and back-to-back strikeouts.

“When you get to that situation or think you might be in it,” said Moreland to reporters after the game, “you try to prepare the best you can and be ready for it when it comes.” Yeah, nothing to it, folks. So what’s with this coming off the bench late and hitting them out with men on base anyway, Mitch? “Yeah, I hit it pretty hard. It felt pretty good.”

C’mon, Mitch. You know how many guys who pinch-hit three-run homers back-to-back five months apart with the first one starting a World Series comeback?

“Yeah, that always helps, I guess, to be in that situation,” Moreland said. “The more preparation you can get and experience you’ve gotten with it, the better you can prepare. Obviously it’s a little bit different. But yeah, still, all the same, you’re trying to go up there and do your job.” Right. Just another night at the office.

Moreland would rather talk about the Red Sox bullpen, which has looked better than their starters over their season’s first two games. “The bullpen did a great job,” he told the Boston Herald. “The offense kept scratching back and creating opportunities. It gave us that chance to win. We’re feeling good right now ready to go tomorrow.”

Red Sox manager Alex Cora still isn’t going to name an official closer from most indications. Done walking the tightropes with Craig Kimbrel, who still hasn’t found a new employer, the Red Sox decided to try the committee approach without quite calling it that. Barnes’s finish followed perfect innings from Brandon Workman in the seventh and, striking out the side, Brian Johnson in the eighth.

The Mariners led 6-1 at one point and had their sharp-looking rookie starter Yusei Kikuchi primed for the win, striking out five and keeping any Red Sox damage to a pair of earned runs on four hits, two of which happened to be home runs from Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez.

But after being destroyed by the Mariners in the Red Sox’s season opener in Seattle, the Olde Towne Team and defending world champions for the fourth time this century had no intention of letting the Mariners drop another safe on them from the twelfth floor.

The Mariners threw the dice and sent their excellent closer Edwin Diaz to the Mets in the deal that also took second baseman Robinson Cano’s contract off their hands and freed up some much needed financial room. But after sweeping the Athletics in the season-opening set in Japan and burying the Red Sox Thursday, the Mariners pen looks like a big question mark.

Zac Rosscup, a lefthander who spent most of 2018 on the shelf with finger and calf injuries, escaped disaster in the seventh when he relieved Festa with one on and two out, overcoming a wild pitch allowing Travis to second by striking Bradley out swinging. But he opened the top of the eighth 2-0 on Vasquez before feeding the Red Sox catcher a fastball so well placed in the middle of the plate Vasquez would have faced a kangaroo court fine if he didn’t send it over the left field fence.

All this on a night the Mariners first looked like they’d have a re-run of Thursday night at Nathan Eovaldi’s expense. The postseason hero whose magnificent turn in the eighteen-inning Game Three marathon probably saved the Series by saving the bullpen for the Red Sox, despite losing on Max Muncy’s game-ending eighteenth-inning homer, picked the wrong night to show up only human and prone to multiple long distance charges.

Eovaldi surrendered solo bombs over the first three innings, to Mallex Smith and Domingo Santana in the first and to Narvaez in the third, before being dismantled in the fourth on an RBI double and back-to-back sacrifice flies. He eked his way through five innings but turned it over to the Red Sox pen in the hole, 6-3.

Then Vasquez closed the deficit to two, Moreland came up from the tunnels to strike, the first Red Sox pinch hitter to hit a go-ahead bomb in the ninth or later since Mike Carp in 2013, and the twelfth in team history to do it. And just like that the Red Sox were back to .500. With a long road to travel yet.

And if you think the Red Sox will avoid weirdness, you didn’t see what happened in the eighth after Vasquez’s bomb. One out, the bases loaded, and Eduardo Nunez at the plate. Nunez hit one rolling slowly up the first base line. Mariners reliever Cory Gearrin, who’d taken over for Rosscup, ran and grabbed the ball on the line and fired home to bag Andrew Benintendi at the plate.

Nunez froze and ducked in front of Gearrin, perhaps thinking the last thing he needed was to have his head taken off by the throw, though Gearrin didn’t quite have to throw it through Nunez. Nunez rejecting potential decapitation enabled Narvaez to throw on to first to finish the jam-escaping double play.

“It’s such a freak play. I’ve never seen it in my life,” Cora said after the game. “It just happened to look that way. It looked bad and probably people are talking about it, tweeting about it, but I bet anybody who’s here would have done the same thing.”

No worries. Nunez and Cora kept their heads. Leaving room for Moreland  and Barnes to make it all freakishly elementary in the end, anyway.

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