ALCS Game One: The world didn’t implode

Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve’s two-run homer tied Game One and turned the game’s momentum to the Astros . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Before the American League Championship Series began, it was easy to remember but so hard to forget. The elephant still lingered in the room.

The American League West-winning Astros. The American League wild card-winning Red Sox. Electronic sign-stealing cheaters versus electronic sign-stealing cheaters. Right?

Not quite that simple. Not even if Red Sox fans and others still cringe over the 2017-18 Astro Intelligence Agency. Not even if Astro fans and others still think the 2018 Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring proved the Astros weren’t alone in high-tech cheating.

Those Red Sox got nailed using their replay room as a sign-stealing helpmate. But they didn’t install the video apparatus in there, MLB did—for them and all thirty teams, behind all home and visitors’ dugouts in all thirty ballparks. Their way, and they probably weren’t the only team doing it, depended on having men on base to relay stolen signs to their batters.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it one more time: With the best intentions, MLB in essence were Mom and Dad leaving the keys to the liquor cabinet behind expecting the kids were mature enough not to open up and party while they were out of town for the weekend. The 2018 Rogue Sox opened up and partied. The 2017-18 Astros built their own distillery.

Their front office used an in-house-designed computer algorithm devised for sign stealing during games, despite the designer’s warning that doing it in-game was illegal. They used a high-speed, real-time camera to abrogate the mandatory eight-second transmission delay and send opposing signs to clubhouse monitors, next to which someone sent the hitters the dope via the infamous trash can bangs.

Both teams cheated then. Both teams seemed like deer frozen in the proverbial headlights when asked to show public accountability and contrition. The Astros were far, far worse. They went far, far above and beyond both the traditional on-the-field, in-the-dugout gamesmanship and the sort of boys-will-be-boys thing the Rogue Sox and others did with the MLB-gifted replay rooms.

Commissioner Rob Manfred may have erred in granting players from those teams immunity in return for the details, but his investigation did at least turn up and discipline the key overseers.

He suspended then-Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch before owner Jim Crane fired the pair. He suspended then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora over Astrogate, but determined the 2018 Rogue Sox’s prime culprit was video room operator J.T. Watkins while manager Cora, his coaches, the front office, and maybe half the Red Sox’s players weren’t in on the replay room reconnaissance ring.

Nobody can redeem those Astros or Red Sox, even if the Red Sox did re-hire a contrite-enough Cora to manage them this year. But we can remind ourselves that, today, only five Astrogate players remain with the team. We should remind ourselves that at least one such suspect, second baseman Jose Altuve, actually demurred from accepting stolen signs and even told his teammates and others to knock off the trash can banging while he was at the plate.

Only nine Rogue Sox members remain in uniform today, too. And, the rules against electronic sign-stealing were tightened in Astrogate’s aftermath. Video room security is now three people deep. Video feed delays are now fifteen seconds over the previous eight. Players caught stealing signs electronically can be suspended without pay or credited major league service time.

This year’s Astros and this year’s Red Sox got to this year’s ALCS regardless. Remove their former taints, and you have two opponents who entered the set with suspect pitching (particularly the Astros, losing Lance McCullers, Jr. to a forearm issue) but very strong offenses. Then, you watched Game One Friday night, even if in spite of yourselves.

You watched Red Sox center fielder Kike Hernandez strike long twice but Altuve strike once to change the game’s momentum toward the eventual 5-4 Astros win.

You watched Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez and Red Sox starter Chris Sale unable to get out of the third inning alive. You watched the ordinarily suspect Astros bullpen hold the Red Sox to four hits, one walk, and one measly run, when Hernandez—who tied the game leading off the top of the third by hitting a Valdez curve ball far over the left center field seats—caught hold of a Ryan Pressly slider and send it deep into the Crawfords in the top of the ninth.

You watched the Red Sox take a 3-1 lead in that third a ground out, a walk, and a base hit up the pipe later, when designated hitter J.D. Martinez’s hopping grounder bumped off Altuve’s glove to send shortstop Xander Bogaerts (the walk) home, before right fielder Hunter Renfroe ripped an RBI double past Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and down the left field line to score Bregman’s Red Sox counterpart Rafael Devers (the base hit).

You watched Altuve ruin that lead in the bottom of the sixth, with Astros center fielder Chas McCormick aboard on a one-out single, when he hit the first pitch he saw from Red Sox reliever Tanner Houck into the Crawfords.

You watched another Red Sox reliever, Hansel Robles, fire sub-100 mph bullets in the bottom of the seventh to get rid of Bregman on a grounder to short and left fielder Yordan Alvarez on a hard-swinging strikeout, before offering Astros shortstop Carlos Correa a changeup that hung up enough for him to yank into the Crawfords to break the three-all tie.

You watched a Red Sox reliever who hadn’t pitched in almost two weeks, Hirokazu Sawamura, surrender a leadoff walk to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel before McCormick bounced a base hit in front of Red Sox left-field insertion Danny Santana (a top-of-the-eighth pinch hitter). You saw Martin Maldonado take a pitch off his right wrist to load the pads with nobody out.

And you saw Altuve hit a sacrifice fly to center to send Gurriel home with the fifth Houston run, though a slightly more on-line throw might have gotten Gurriel at the plate to keep things within a single run for Hernandez’s second launch of the night.

Kike Hernandez

Hernandez’s dive-and-roll catch of Michael Brantley’s second-inning-ending, bases-loaded sinking liner wasn’t enough to stop the Astros Friday night. Neither were his two long home runs. (Fox Sports screenshot.)

Hernandez’s mayhem—the two homers on a 4-for-5 night (the first such leadoff hitter in the Show to do it), bringing him to fourteen hits in 28 postseaon at-bats this time around, his MLB-record third lifetime postseason game of ten total bases—may not have been quite enough for the Red Sox to take Game One. But it was more than enough to impress Astros manager Dusty Baker.

“I haven’t seen a hitter this hot in the last week than Kike Hernandez,” the skipper said post-game, after Hernandez’s first launch came during Baker’s brief turn talking to Fox Sports broadcasters Joe Buck and Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. “Boy, when I saw that ball go up, I was like, oh man, that was a blast. Then he blasted another one. It’s not a good feeling when you know you’re live on air and you see that ball leaving the ballpark.”

Hernandez wasn’t the only one dancing with the record books. Altuve and Correa became the first teammates to homer in the same postseason game for a fourth time. “He is just so dangerous,” said Correa of Altuve post-game. “His track record in the playoffs is insane, and he just inspires me. He inspires me without saying much.”

That track record includes tying Hall of Famer Derek Jeter for number three on the all-time postseason bomb roll with his 20th such launch Friday night. But you should have heard Altuve speak of Correa, too. “He is amazing,” the compact second baseman said of his keystone partner at shortstop. “He likes this kind of game. He wants to go out there and hit big homers. It seems like he expects to go out there and do it, so if you’re expecting something, eventually you’re going to make it happen, and that’s him.”

Hernandez also impressed the Astros and maybe even some of their home crowd Friday night with a few defensive gems, particularly his dive-and-roll catch of designated hitter Michael Brantley’s bases-loaded, sinking line drive to end the bottom of the second. But he’d have swapped all that for a Red Sox win.

“I think overall we played a good game,” he said postgame. “Once again, we didn’t do a good job of adding on to the lead, and at the end of the day, that’s why we lost. We weren’t able to add any more runs.” That was in large part because the usually suspect Astro bullpen managed to keep them to a measly four hits and a walk in the unexpected bullpen game.

With Nathan Eovaldi starting Game Two, and the still-fresh memory of being shut out by the Rays to start a division series in which they won the next three straight, the Red Sox don’t exactly have reasons to cringe just yet. Even Sale admitted Eovaldi was their best foot forward to launch Saturday.

“We’ve got the right guy on the right mound, and that’s all we can say,” he said. “Our lineup is going to bang with the best of them. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve got to do the little things right, and with Nate taking the ball, that’s everything we could ask for.”

So guess what didn’t happen when the two teams still recovering from their own Astrogate and Rogue Sox scandals—yes, listed in the order of true gravity—tangled in Game One? Knowing that no one will be comfortable with either one wholly, but the Astros especially, until the last Astrogater or the last of the Rogue Sox no longer wears either uniform?

The world didn’t implode. The flora didn’t wilt. The fauna didn’t commit mass suicide. The moon didn’t fall into the river. The sun didn’t awaken before its appointed time. The nations didn’t fall from the earth. The earth didn’t go flat.

Unless there comes fresh contravening evidence, the Astros and the Red Sox played it straight, no chaser, in a game that would have classified as a bit of a thriller had it not been for that still-lingering elephant. The one aboard which the Astros, like it or not, still look far, far worse than the Red Sox or their fellow unverified-but-certain replay room rogues do.

“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.

Off the wall in Fenway Park

Christian Vazquez

Christian Vazquez’s walk-off bomb should have been the co-story of Game Three with Nick Pivetta’s stout four extra innings’ shutout relief. But no . . .

You could hear the blue-murder screaming even before Christian Vazquez ended American League division series Game Three in the bottom of the thirteenth. You could hear furious Rays fans and sympathisers thinking Game Four deserves no shorter justice than the Red Sox getting killed to death.

They saw Vazquez hit a two-run homer, igniting a berserk celebration around all Fenway Park, and thought to themselves before hollering loud and long, We wuz robbed!!! They probably still think so.

They think the Rays should have come out of the top of the thirteenth with a 5-4 lead, the run scored from first by Yandy Diaz off Kevin Kiermaier’s two-out double against Red Sox reliever Nick Pivetta. That thought would have been wholly reasonable—except for the umpires calling for a rules review, ruling ground-rule double, and thus ruling Diaz back to third base.

The problem was Kiermaier’s drive bounced off the right field wall, off the track, then off Red Sox right fielder Hunter Renfroe and over the wall. Official Rule 5.05(a)(8) spells out the wherefore: If a fair ball not in flight is deflected by a fielder and then goes out of play, the award is two bases from the time of that pitch.

Rule 5.05(a)8 distinguishes between intent and lack of intent. Had Renfroe actually tried and succeeded in deflecting the ball over the wall, Diaz would have been awarded home because he’d passed second base just as the ball ricocheted off Renfroe’s thigh over the wall. But Renfroe never touched the ball with either hand.

Postgame, Kiermaier remained in abject disbelief. “I can’t believe that happened or we don’t get the chance to score right there,” the Rays center fielder said. “For one, I crushed that ball. I was hoping to leave the yard. I got a lot of snap and crackle but no pop. First and foremost, for that to happen right there, it just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Even the Red Sox didn’t know what to think at first.

“I’ve never seen that before in my life,” said center fielder Kike Hernandez, whose fifth-inning homer put the Red Sox up 4-2. “I wasn’t sure what was going to get called. I wasn’t sure if the runners had to return. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be like an errant throw where the runner would get two bags. Like I had no idea.”

It made sense to home plate umpire Sam Holbrook after the review mandated the ground-rule double ruling. “Very simple,” the ump said. “From an umpire’s standpoint, very simple textbook in the rule.”

Maybe the rule should be reviewed and changed, maybe it shouldn’t, if you consider intent paramount on a play that was so freakish in the first place. But within its strict letter, lacking verifiable intent on Renfroe’s part, Kiermaier indeed had to settle for the ground rule double and Diaz indeed had to return to third.

The game remained tied at four. Red Sox reliever Nick Pivetta recovered to finish his fourth inning worth of three-hit, no-run, seven-strikeout relief. Rays fans may consider it having added insult to insulting injury when Renfroe himself held on for the full-count walk with one out in the bottom of the thirteenth.

Then Vazquez—who’d only come into the game as a pinch-hitter for his catching predecessor Kevin Plawecki in the sixth—caught hold of Rays reliever Luis Patino’s first offering and sent it into the Monster seats above left center for the 6-4 Red Sox win. If the would-have-been Diaz run had held up, it would have meant the Rays losing by a single run instead of two.

In a game about which it was entirely fair to say it would be a shame for either side to lose, the Rays wrestled back from a 4-2 deficit in the top of the eighth off Red Sox reliever Hansel Robles. Wander Franco hit a 3-1 fastball down the chute for a leadoff homer over the Monster; Randy Arozarena with two outs doubled pinch-runner Manuel Margot home.

Before that, the Rays re-learned how stingy Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi can be after he gets touched up in the beginning. Once Austin Meadows parked a one-out two-run homer into the bullpens in the top of the first, Eovaldi went forward to pitch shutout ball the next four-and-a-third innings.

The Red Sox chased Rays starter Drew Rasmussen with three straight singles in the third, including Hernandez sending leadoff singler Christian Arroyo home with the tying run at two. Josh Fleming relieved Rasmussen and Rafael Devers greeted him with an RBI single up the pipe to put the Red Sox up, 3-2.

After Hernandez’s leadoff yank into the Monster seats off Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks to open the fifth, and the Rays tied things at four in the eighth, Game Three’s big story figured to be Pivetta. His stout extra-innings shutout relief reminded observers of Eovaldi’s own bullpen-saving, six innings stout relief in that marathon Game Three of the 2018 World Series.

Pivetta’s outing probably changed Red Sox manager Alex Cora’s plan to start him in Game Four. After Sunday night’s win Cora probably won’t complain too much. He’d said previously that whatever the plan going in the game itself would govern the moves and the changes. When he needed a stopper before the Rays got any more ornery than tying the game at four, he picked the right man for the job.

Don’t blame the ground-rule double for costing the Rays Game Three. The Red Sox led each of the first six innings off with a man reaching base. The Rays’ none-too-shabby lineup struck out twenty times and worked only four walks. They had one hit in nine opportunities with runners in scoring position.

Don’t use it to steal Vasquez’s big moment, either. The moment in which he became only the fifth catcher in Show history to end an extra-inning postseason game with a walk-off home run. The other three: Carlton Fisk (Game Six, 1975 World Series), Tony Pena (1995 AL division series Game One), Jim Leyritz (1995 AL division series Game Two), and Todd Pratt (1999 National League divison series Game One).

The moment, too, in which he hit the sixth postseason walkoff bomb in Red Sox history, joining Fisk, Manny Ramirez (Game Two, 2007 ALDS), David Ortiz (Game Four, 2004 American League Championship Series; Game Three, 2004 ALDS), and Trot Nixon (Game Three, 2003 ALDS).

“There’s no, ‘He would have done this, would have done that’,” Holbrook said. “It’s just flat-out in the rule book, it’s a ground-rule double.” Though even Holbrook couldn’t remember having seen any similar play in the quarter century he’s been a major league umpire.

But this was not Don Denkinger absolutely blowing what should have been an out call to start the bottom of the ninth of Game Six, 1985 World Series. A blown call that infuriated those Cardinals so much that, after the Royals forced Game Seven and the umpire rotation placed Denkinger behind the plate for it, the Cardinals imploded almost completely to lose that Series.

These Rays are made of far better stuff than that. These Red Sox know it. The Red Sox now stand on the threshold of going to the American League Championship Series, but they won’t kid themselves that the Rays will be pushovers. Neither should you.

Arozarobber

Randy Arozarena

Quick on the overshift uptake, Randy Arozarena stole home straight up Thursday night. Yogi Bear never had it that simple stealing picnic baskets.

There are and have been men playing baseball who love their secondary skills almost more than they love what usually earns their keep. Randy Arozarena, Rays outfielder and batter extraordinaire, is one of those men. He can hit around the field and for distance, but he loves to run.

Give him an inch, or an abandoned side of an infield, and Arozarena’s more than happy do his part to turn a baseball game, even Game One of an American League division series, into a track meet. Give him almost all the third base side of the infield while he’s on third, and he’ll add grand theft home plate to his pleasures.

It’s not that he gets away with it every time he breaks out of his gates on the bases. He tied the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani for the American League lead in arrests for attempted theft with ten. As thieves go, Arozarena had a 67 percent success rate on the regular season. Rickey Henderson he ain’t. Yet.

The one that mattered most was the job Arozarena pulled in the bottom of the seventh Thursday night, after wringing a two-out, full-count walk from Red Sox reliever Nick Pavetta and taking third when Wander Franco doubled right behind him. Then the Red Sox shifted to the right side and brought lefthanded reliever Josh Taylor in to face lefthanded-hitting Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe.

With Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers playing in the proper shortstop location dead center between second and third, Arozarena might as well have been wandering into the Next-to-Last National Bank and discovering security officers sound asleep before sliding his stick-’em-up demand through the teller window.

Taylor seemed almost wholly oblivious to Arozarena ambling almost halfway down the third base line as he concentrated on Lowe at the plate. Apparently, the Rays’ advance scouting secured that tendency to use as opportunity presented itself. But Arozarena also read the room on his own and smelled the opportunity in front of him.

Maybe with two outs Taylor also felt there was no way Arozarena would be that brazen. Lowe fouled a 1-2 pitch straight back out of play. Taylor leaned in for his signs, straightened back up to throw—and Arozarena bolted for home the split moment Taylor came set in the stretch.

Yogi Bear never had that simple a time stealing picnic baskets in Jellystone Park.

“I noticed that the pitcher wasn’t really watching for me or covering for me,” Arozarena said postgame, “and I saw the third baseman was pretty far away in respect to where I was at. I was looking over to [third-base coach Rodney] Linares, telling him, ‘Hey, I’m going to go. I’m going to go.’ Peeked over and saw Cash give him the green light as well, so that’s when I decided to take off.”

Lowe stepped back out of the box as Arozarena hit the jets, and Taylor just cranked and threw home fast and futilely. Red Sox catcher Christian Vasquez had no chance as he sprang afront the plate to take the throw, wheeling around back on his knees to tag.

He’d have had a better chance apprehending John Dillinger without a pistol and handcuffs than he had when Arozarena shot across the plate in a safe dive—almost like Michael Phelps hitting the pool for yet another Olympic gold medal.

What looked in the moment like Arozarena just showing himself off—this is his second postseason and he already had ten postseason home runs plus an American League Championship Series MVP on his resume—proved insurance after all in the 5-0 Rays win.

That’s because the Red Sox were barely recovered from Arozarena’s heist when they suddenly loaded the bases in the top of the eighth on a leadoff single and a pair of one-out base hits bringing Rafael Devers to the plate against Rays reliever J.P. Feyereisen. One swing and the Red Sox might have been back in business, at maximum with their deficit cut to a single run.

But Feyereisen struck Devers out swinging on 1-2. He got former Ray Hunter Renfroe to foul out to first for the side. Then both sides went quietly in the bottom of the eighth and the top of the ninth.

Taylor didn’t comment after the game but Red Sox manager Alex Cora did. ““I think JT was actually paying attention,” Cora said of Taylor and the Arozarena theft, “but probably two strikes, he had Lowe with two strikes and probably the concentration was with the hitter. Just put him away, and Randy had an amazing job.”

Rays manager Kevin Cash credited Arozarena’s room reading. “We don’t practice that,” Cash said of the theft. “The game has evolved to where defending the hitter is so important. We do the same thing. It’s not the most comfortable thing in the world to pull the third baseman off, certainly with a left-handed pitcher who can’t see everything. But it ultimately comes down to his decision-making and his ability to react.”

Except that, between such things as thinking players dropping bunts for free base hits onto the open expanses and thinking thieves like Arozarena accepting when handed that big a larceny invitation, maybe those defensive overshifts might begin dissipating at last.

The Red Sox erred in handing Arozarena that much leeway even trying to defend against Lowe. They couldn’t afford that on a night they swung futilely against four Rays pitchers including rookie starter Shane McClanahan, who went five scoreless scattering five hits while the Red Sox went 1-for-7 with men in scoring position on the night.

And, on a night the Rays pecked and powered their way to the division series-opening win against Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez (who lasted only five outs) and Pivetta (Arozarena’s home steal went on Pivetta’s jacket), with three other Red Sox relievers plus the Rays’ stingy defense keeping them off the board despite more than a few hard hit balls.

My command wasn’t great at all on every pitch,” Rodriguez said postgame about Cora’s decision to pull him in the second inning. “So I’m not surprised. This is the playoffs. And you’ve got to go out there and do your job. If you don’t do it, you’re coming out of the game.”

It doesn’t look as good as you might think for the Red Sox in Game Two, either. Oh, you might think they’ll be back on track with Chris Sale scheduled to start, but Sale hasn’t prevailed against the Rays all year long.

With one theft of home Arozarena also came close to wiping out the memory of what he did to lead off the bottom of the fifth, swinging on a full count and sending Pavetta’s fastball just off the middle into the left field seats for the fourth Rays run. Making Arozarena the first man ever to hit one out and steal the plate in the same postseason game.

Pinocchio, you’re a real man now.

Arozarena’s come very far from that fateful October 2019 afternoon when, as a member of the Cardinals, he foolishly videoed Mike Schildt’s sore-winner rant and sent it viral enough, after those Cardinals blew the Braves right out of that postseason—only to get bludgeoned out themselves by the eventual World Series champion Nationals.

Three months later, the Cardinals traded Arozarena with Jose Martinez to the Rays for a couple of minor league spare parts. Martinez was supposed to be the big catch. But he faltered in the pan-damn-ically short 2020 season, after missing most of “summer camp” with COVID-19 himself, before the Rays dealt him to the Cubs at that year’s trade deadline.

I don’t know if the viral video—which he took down almost as fast as it went viral—helped compel the Cardinals to throw Arozarena in on that deal as much as their surplus of outfielders in the organisation did. But the Rays have no complaints yet.

He’s become their Mr. October. He’s picked up right where he left off last postseason. The only shock now would be if the Red Sox aren’t tempted heavily to swear out a warrant for his arrest on charges of grand theft.

Mystique and Aura have left the building

Xander Bogaerts

Bogaerts throwing the perfect strike to the plate to bag Aaron Judge, after Yankee third base coach Phil Nevins didn’t stop Judge rounding third at the moment Bogaerts released the throw. This is the kind of thing that used to make Red Sox life living hell—in the last century.

If we must suffer the wild card system still, we hope yet that the wild card games themselves have potential for excitement, and maybe even a little transcendence. The kind that happened in the American League wild card game Tuesday night, in Fenway Park, was everything the Yankees didn’t have in mind.

Their season ended in a 6-2 loss to the Red Sox that flipped the too-long script of Yankee-Red Sox surrealities past and ancient. Because something that usually happened in the last century to the Red Sox, when they could just taste even a piece of glory, happened to the Yankees Tuesday night.

Two teams about whose seasons it could be said most politely that they threatened to implode at too many points collided. The Red Sox played like a championship team. The Yankees played like a team whose destiny was disaster. This was not the natural order of things for either side before the turn of this century.

That was the Twentieth Century: Dubious decisions with games on the line or close enough to it compounded what seemed ages of Red Sox disaster. This was Tuesday night: A dubious decision when the Yankees could have had a clean chance at possibly tying the wild card game all but guaranteed their homegoing instead.

Much as you’d like to see the sports goat business put out of business once and for all, it’s going to be hard to resist planting those horns squarely upon the head of Yankee third base coach Phil Nevin for what transpired in the top of the sixth.

Nevin only thought he could send Aaron Judge all the way home from first, when Giancarlo Stanton drove one off Red Sox reliever Ryan Brasier that looked like it was going to fly into the Green Monster seats. Until it didn’t. It banged off that notorious wall and to the ground in left center, where Red Sox left fielder Alex Verdugo overran the ball but center fielder Enrique Hernandez running right played the carom almost perfectly and threw in.

Hernandez fired a perfect strike to Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts as the cutoff man, and—as Judge rounded third barreling home on his long legs—Bogaerts whipped around to fire a perfect strike to Red Sox catcher Kevin Plawecki. Judge started his dive as Plawecki caught the throw, and Judge was a dead pigeon with his right hand about two feet from touching the plate.

Instead of first and third and one out, after finally ridding themselves of Boston’s lights-out starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, the Yankees settled for Stanton on second and two out. With Joey Gallo coming to the plate and popping out to Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers playing it back on the short outfield grass for the side.

And, with every cheering jaw in Fenway Park still dropped over Nevin turning Judge into a kamikaze.

Yankee manager Aaron Boone takes an excessive share of abuse for the Yankees’ in-season hiccups and postseason shortfalls—especially with his contract expiring now, but just about since he first took the Yankee bridge. Never mind that Boone managed back-to-back 100+ win seasons in his first two years on that bridge, which no Yankee manager did before him. Never mind the Yankees averaging 98 wins a year in his three full seasons on that bridge.

But even Boone’s worst critics can’t get away with hanging this one on him. Not that they’re not trying. From almost the moment Boone took the bridge in the first place, the first Yankee shortfall of any given series or season—a bad pitch, a bad plate appearance, a bad inning, a one-game losing streak—has brought demands for Boone’s perp walk and summary execution. Preferably five minutes earlier.

You’d think Yankeetown still hasn’t grasped the concept that it’s entirely possible for the other guys to play better and smarter when it means the most. Which is exactly what happened Tuesday night.

Boone once broke Red Sox Nation hearts with his pennant-winning blast in the bottom of the eleventh in Yankee Stadium in 2003. Now the poor man seemed as befuddled himself as everyone else in Fenway Park and in the ESPN television audience for making sense of Nevin’s send.

“I think . . . the ball coming in looked like it was going to be kind of an in-between hop to the infielder,” Boone said postgame about Hernandez’s throw in to Bogaerts. “Bogaerts did a good job of creating a hop, catching it clean and and obviously throwing home and getting him. And that kind of squashed the potential rally there, so I think what [Nevin] saw was what he thought was going to be kind of an in-between hop and really a tough chance.”

“Create” the hop? Bogaerts was simply standing on the short center field grass waiting for the throw and the hop created itself, right into Bogaerts’s glove held out to his left. He turned at the split second the ball hit his glove and threw home perfectly.

Bogaerts talking postgame said that play and his part in it meant even more than the two-run homer he drilled into the center field bleachers off Yankee starter Gerrit Cole in the top of the first. Small wonder. The Red Sox were the American League’s most defensively challenged team of the regular season. On Tuesday night they found it in them to play far above their own defensive heads when it mattered the most.

“That [play] was better than a homer for me, personally,” he said. “I mean, if that run scores, it’s 3-2. Stanton is at second base, the whole momentum is on their side. The dugout is getting pumped up. As Judge was out at home, I saw Stanton was pretty mad. He probably wanted a homer there, but also an RBI, and he didn’t get that, and he probably felt like he didn’t do much because that run didn’t score. But that changed the game.”

The Monster factor was made only too vivid in the bottom of the sixth, when Alex Verdugo sent a high liner to deep right off Yankee pitcher Luis Severino working in relief. The ball bounced off the lower part of the fence, a clean enough double, well enough to enable Bogaerts (aboard with a one-out walk) to score the fourth Red Sox run of the night.

Three times Tuesday night Stanton hit what looked like certain home runs. Aside from the sixth-inning rip that indeed turned out to change the game irrevocably, he ripped one so high toward the Monster that even the Red Sox thought it was going to disappear. Until it didn’t. Stanton was so certain that he settled into his home run trot and was held to a measly single.

In the top of the ninth, against Red Sox relief pitcher (and former Yankee product) Garrett Whitlock, Stanton sent a parabolic launch the other way into the right field seats just past the Pesky Pole himself. By then it was an excuse-me! shot for only the second Yankee run. Whittaker ended the game by getting Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres to pop out to right.

Kyle Schwarber

The Schwarbinator became the first of two former Cubs batting leadoff Tuesday night to strike big . . .

Legends real and alleged used to include longtime Chicago newspaper star Mike Royko’s postulate that the team with the most ex-Cubs lost. The Red Sox and the Yankees may have really tempted real or imagined ancient fates with their chosen leadoff men Tuesday night: World Series-winning ex-Cub teammates Kyle Schwarber (designated hitter, Red Sox, by way of the Nationals) and Anthony Rizzo (first baseman, Yankees, at this year’s trade deadline).

Those moves came of dire necessity, actually. The Red Sox lacked designated hitter J.D. Martinez after he rolled his ankle in the Red Sox season finale, and the Yankees lacked second base regular D.J. LeMahieu thanks to a sports hernia. So, naturally, the Elysian Fields gods decided to have a little mad fun. Right?

Schwarber struck first. With Cole already having a miserable evening in the hole 2-0, the Schwarbinator led off the bottom of the third by driving a 1-2 service no doubt and about twelve rows into the right field seats. Rizzo struck back with one out in the top of the sixth, hitting Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi’s first service on a high line inside that Pesky Pole for the first Yankee run. Then Judge promptly beat out a tough bouncer to shortstop.

The good news for the Yankees is that that finally got Eovaldi out of the game, after he’d manhandled them brilliantly through five and a third including eight strikeouts and no walks. The bad news was Judge on the threshold of disaster on the Stanton home run that wasn’t and the Nevin send that shouldn’t have been.

No Yankee reached base on walks all night. Seven Red Sox reached on walks from Cole and three Yankee relievers. Only Clay Holmes out of the Yankee pen, facing five batters, didn’t walk a single Red Sox batter while surrendering one hit and striking one out. The walks really burned the Yankees in the bottom of the seventh, when Verdugo sent the insurance runs home with two out, slashing a two-run single against Yankee reliever Chad Green to score Hernandez and Schwarber—both of whom had reached on walks.

That Yankee sixth is what used to happen to the Red Sox when they could just taste even a piece of glory in their mouths. Something surreal. Something from The Twilight Zone. Something else from The Outer Limits. Something more from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Leaving the Red Sox yet again fallen to the rocks below when they’d gotten to within one mile or a few innings of the mountaintop.

Why, even B.F. Dent himself—hitter of the home run that broke an earlier generation of New England hearts in the 1978 American League East playoff game—was in the Fenway stands and chatting for one minute with ESPN analyst Buster Olney. (He admitted he’s still asked about that three-run homer into the ancient Monster net—about two or three times a day.)

Except that the ESPN audience probably noticed Dent a lot more than the crowd around him in the stands did. They were too well and appropriately occupied with the Yankees incurring the kind of outrageous malfortune that once seemed the birthright of Red Sox baseball.

Before the game Dent predicted to Boston Globe columnist (and author of The Curse of the Bambino) Dan Shaughnessy, “I think Gerrit Cole will pitch a great game, and I think the Yankees will beat ’em.” That’d teach him. Cole pitched two full innings in the hole 2-0 and got nobody out while facing two more batters after Schwarber’s leadoff launch in the third.

This time, it was the Yankees crushed by trans-dimensional furies and a fatal miscalculation. It’s starting to become as much a Yankee thing this century as a Red Sox thing last. From Dave Roberts stealing second to launch that surreal 2004 Red Sox self-resurrection to Jose Altuve’s pennant-winning two-run homer, it looks as though Mystique and Aura really have left the building.

The ladies didn’t have to take Phil Nevin’s baseball brain with them, though.

Wherever the Red Sox go from here, and they know it won’t be easy tangling with the AL East champion Rays in a division series, nothing can change the extraterrestrial triumph over the Empire Emeritus that gives them that chance in the first place.