“Whatever it takes to win”

Kike Hernandez (center, hatless) surrounded by Red Sox teammates after his walk-off sacrifice fly sealed their trip to the American League Championship Series.

Well, the Rays only thought their rather decisive first-game win in this now-concluded American League division series meant the beginning of another deep postseason trip. Who knew it would prove to be just the last win of the year for the American League’s winningest regular season team?

Come to think of it, a lot of people only thought the Red Sox’s apparent disarray in enough of the regular season, including their final home set while the Yankees swept them, and in losing two of three to the Orioles before sweeping the also-ran re-tooling Nationals to finish the schedule?

The Rays won the AL East decisively, and with the best regular-season record in franchise history. The Red Sox had to wrestle their way into the wild card game before beating the Yankees in a game featuring the sort of thing happening to the Empire Emeritus that used to mean surrealistic disaster for the Olde Towne Team.

Lovely way to send the Yankees home, many must have thought, but oh, are they going to feel it when the Rays get hold of them.

The only thing the Red Sox must feel now is that their postseason work has only just begun. But if the ways they shook off that Game One 5-0 loss to take the next three from the Rays are any indication, they’re about as up to the task as any formerly buffeted team awaiting their American League Championship Series opponent can be.

They live by the team play motto to such a fare-thee-well that you can suggest any given one will sacrifice for the good of the team—which makes it so appropriate that they finally won this division series with . . . a sacrifice fly.

Lose a 2-0 top of the first Game Two lead to a grand salami in the bottom of that inning? “No panic,” said manager Alex Cora. No panic—and allow only one more Tampa Bay run while turning that quick-as-you-please 5-2 deficit into a 14-6 blowout.

Lose a 6-2 Game Three lead on an eighth-inning leadoff homer by Rays rookie star Wander Franco and a two-out RBI double by not-too-young Rays rookie star Randy Arozarena, then have to ride a Phillies throwaway named Nick Pivetta for four extra innings? No sweat—just let Christian Vazquez rip a one-out two-run homer into the Green Monster seats in the bottom of the thirteenth and win, 6-4.

Blow a 5-0 Game Four lead off a five-run third crowned by Rafael Devers sending a three-run homer over Fenway Park’s second-highest wall and into the center field seats? We do this kinda stuff to them all through the picture. Just let Kike Hernandez say thank you to the nice Rays for not putting him on to load the bases for an any place/any time/extra-innings ticket double play—by banging the game and set-winning sacrifice fly short of the left center field track.

“I mean, here we are surprising everybody but ourselves,” said Hernandez post-game, once he escaped drowning in the Red Sox celebration. “We knew in spring training we had the team to make it this far and here we are.”

Well, the Red Sox did lead the entire Show in comeback wins during the regular season. They also managed a rather impressive .591 winning percentage in one-run games. But they also suffered a 12-16 August that wasn’t necessarily as disastrous as some other Augusts by some other teams this year. (Hello, Mess—er, Mets.) Between injuries, COVID-19 illnesses, and assorted other mishaps. nobody else seemed to remember if they knew what Hernandez said the Red Sox knew last spring.

Surprising everybody but themselves? Sure. Let’s buy into that despite the Red Sox trailing in three of these four division series games. Let’s buy into that despite the Red Sox having to win twice in their final plate appearances. Let’s buy into that despite an ankle-compromised designated hitter, a second baseman getting his first daily plate appearances in around three months, and pulling a hutch of rabbits out of their hats.

Well, guess what? You’ve probably bought into more improbabilities than those in your lives as baseball fans, observers, writers. If you speculated on the Red Sox’s apparent pitching goulash out-pitching the Rays’ more obvious pitching depth going in? You ought to think about buying lottery tickets in every state that offers them.

If you bought into Garrett Whitlock, a find on the Rule 5 minor league draft heap, pitching no-hit, no-run relief for the final two Game Four innings and becoming the Red Sox’s highest-leverage bullpen bull, forget the lottery? You ought to be investing on Wall Street. You can’t lose. Yet.

If you bought into Jordan Luplow doubling and scoring in the fifth, Franco abusing Red Sox reliever Tanner Houck for a two-run homer in the sixth, and Kevin Kiermaier whacked an RBI double ahead of Arozarena whacking a two-run double to tie things at five in the eighth? You ought to seed the advent of Jetsons-style flying cars.

But if you bought into Game Three hero Vazquez leading off the Red Sox ninth with a base hit, Christian Arroyo sneaking a sacrifice bunt to the short right of the first base line, pinch hitter Travis Shaw slow bouncing a tough hopper toward third that wouldn’t get him in time at first, then taking second on defensive indifference with Hernandez at the plate? That’s beyond my pay grade, too.

Why didn’t Cash put Hernandez on with one out? He wasn’t really about to load the pads for Devers and be forced to prayer that he could get away with it. Devers already had three hits on the night. With the winning run already ninety fee from scoring, putting Hernandez aboard would have meant only the possibility of having put the insult-adding-to-injury run on base.

So Cash trusted his reliever J.P. Feyereisen to take care of Hernandez. The first pitch tied Hernandez up by sailing up and in tight on the Red Sox center fielder. The next pitch sailed into Austin Meadows’s glove in left center, too far back to keep pinch-runner Danny Santana from sailing home with the Red Sox’s ALCS tickets punched.

“It was quick,” Feyereisen said postgame, and he could have been talking the series as well as the end of Game Four. “I think that’s one of the main things when we sat down, like, ‘Wow, I didn’t think it was gonna be over this quickly’. We felt good. We played some good games. You come in here, especially with this atmosphere with these [Fenway] crowds and two walk-off wins, that’s tough.”

What was even more tough for the Rays is that, all series long, they struck out 46 times at the plate to the Red Sox’s 23—and that includes 20 Rays strikeouts in Game Three’s thirteen-inning theater. By contrast, the Red Sox picked up from being shut out in Game One to hit .364 with nine home runs in Games Two through Four and delivered 56 hits the entire set.

The Rays’ wounding offensive flaw, being Three True Outcomes enough all year long, bit their heads off in the division series. They hit seven homers and ten doubles but had a collective .211 team batting average all set long. They’ll have to figure out how to improve their overall contact without sacrificing their impressive power.

They’re young, they’re deep, they’re they’re tenacious, they’re a model of resourcefulness despite their limited dollars. Their championship window isn’t being boarded up just yet.

Their farm is considered deep and still promising. They’ve got their own kind of guts, playing and pitching rookies in the postseason as if it was the natural thing to do. Even if it was borne of the unpleasant necessities delivered by injuries, near-habitual turnover, and in-season moves that didn’t work. The rooks—shortstop Franco, pitchers Shane McClanahan and Luis Patino in particular—showed heart beyond their years even in defeat.

Yes, it’s tough to remember Arozarena was still a rookie this season, technically. His coming-out part last postseason took care of that, and he shone like a well-established veteran this time around. From homering and stealing home in Game One through two hits and that Game Four-tying hit in the eighth, Arozarena was a rookie in name only this year.

Losing righthander Tyler Glasnow to Tommy John surgery was probably the key blow to the Rays in the end. Free-agent veteran Michael Wacha took a 5.05 regular season ERA into the postseason . . . and allowed a mere two-run deficit to turn into that 14-6 Game Two blowout in two and two thirds innings. One more veteran other than Game Four opener Collin McHugh might have made a big difference.

The Red Sox are just as conscious of analytics as any other team so advanced, including the Rays who practically live by it. But they’re a lot better in balancing analytics to the moment. Cora is as much an advance information maven as any skipper in baseball, but he’s also unafraid to shift his cards and play to what’s in front of him when it’s demanded of him.

He doesn’t play October baseball like the regular season. If he did, he wouldn’t have gone to eight postseason series as a manager or a bench coach and been on the winning side in each of them. He’s not afraid to take risks, he doesn’t sweat it if and when they backfire.

“That’s our motto right now: Whatever it takes to win,” said Hernandez. “Just win today, and we’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. Lineup, bullpen, starting rotation, like, it doesn’t matter. We’re a team, and we’re one. We’re not 26 dudes, we’re just one.” Lucky for them the Red Sox aren’t out of tomorrows just yet.

Cora’s Game Four starting pitcher, Eduardo Rodriguez—lifted after an inning and two thirds in Game One following that first-inning disaster, but pitching shutout ball until Luplow scored on a ground out in the fifth, then coming out after Kiermaier doubled to open the sixth—calls Cora “like a father, brother, manager, whatever. He trusts us. He trusts everybody in that clubhouse. He gives you the chance every time that he hands (the ball) to you, and you’ve just got to go out there and do your job.”

“He’s a guy you’d run through a wall for,” said Whitlock. “If he told me to run through that wall, I’d believe that he had something there to make sure it would fall for me.”

It turned out the Rays wall wasn’t quite as sturdy as everyone else thought going in. The Red Sox have sturdier walls to face going forward. Walls that won’t be as friendly to them as the Green Monster seems to be.

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