ALCS Game Two: The traveling Red Sox delicatessen

J.D. Martinez

Martinez—slicing salami in the top of the first . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Two innings. Two thick slices of beef salami. Never before done in a single postseason game.

If there’s a spicier way for the Red Sox to recover from a tight enough American League Championship Series-opening loss than that, you may need to deploy an archaelogical expedition to exhume it.

Six teams have hit pairs of grand slams in the same postseason series, from the 1956 Yankees (World Series) to the 1977 Dodgers (National League Championship Series), from the 1987 Twins (World Series) to the 1998 Braves (NL division series), from the 2001 Diamondbacks (NLDS) to the 2013 Red Sox (ALCS).

Then came J.D. Martinez in the top of the first and Rafael Devers in the top of the second. Just like that, they powered themselves into postseason history and the Red Sox toward a 9-5 series-evening Game Two win. Even if the Astros managed to scrape, scratch, and then launch themselves out of an embarrassing blowout.

There were those asking before the postseason began whether the Red Sox could handle the team who beat them the most frequently when they met in October. The Rays beat them eleven times over the season’s final 89 games. Well, now. After an opening game shutout, the Red Sox sent the Rays home from the division series with three straight losses.

Then, they asked whether the Red Sox could handle the team that beat them with the most ammunition. The Astros beat them in five out of seven meetings in May and June and outscored them 42-25. Well, now. This ALCS is about to shift to Fenway Park after a set-opening split in Minute Maid Park.

The scoring thus far is 13-10, Red Sox. But don’t fool yourselves. The racket only sounded larger than life in Houston because the Astros elected to keep their home playpen’s roof closed for the most part. In open and cooler Fenway Park, the lack of a roof doesn’t matter. The postseason racket is manna for the Red Sox and anything but for visitors.

Right now, the Red Sox ride momentum they snatched back from the Astros in Game Two even more swiftly than the Astros wrestled it for themselves in Game One.

Things were bad enough for the Astros on Saturday with their starting pitcher Luis Garcia taking the ball on a balky right knee, the leg on which he pushes off the pitching rubber. They got worse when Kyle Schwarber opened Game Two with a double to deep left center, Rafael Devers returned from 0-2 to work a one-out walk, and Alex Verdugo waited a two-out walk to set up the ducks on the pond for Martinez.

Rafael Devers

Devers, slicing salami in the second . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

The Red Sox designated hitter brought a string of no hits in his twelve previous plate appearances with men on base. Martinez made up for it with one swing, driving a 1-0 fastball just off the strike zone’s bull’s eye the other way and into the right field seats.

Unaware in the moment about Garcia’s push knee, Martinez knew the pressure was almost entirely on the Houston righthander who looks almost as though he does the rhumba at the rubber before he delivers home. “[The pressure’s] not on me to come through there,” Martinez said postgame.

“It’s the first inning,” he continued. “He has the bases loaded. I’m trying to tell myself that, trying to stay relaxed and just looking for a pitch so I can just put a barrel on it.” Barrel? Martinez put a depth charge into it.

Garcia was probably lucky to get out of the inning on life support by striking Hunter Renfroe out. But after Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi slithered out of his own lesser two-out jam in the bottom of the first, Alex Bregman aboard with a two-out double as Yordan Alvarez flied out to deep center, Garcia wouldn’t be so fortunate in the second.

He walked Kevin Plawecki, Eovaldi’s personal catcher, on four high pitches. Manager Dusty Baker and head trainer Jeremiah Randall visited the mound. The entire Astros infield plus catcher Martín Maldonado surrounded them. Garcia finally admitted his right knee bothered him a good while before Game Two.

Baker lifted him for another righthander, Jake Odorizzi, who might have waited to start Game Four otherwise in the Astro plan. Inadvertently, Baker did the Red Sox what may yet prove the largest favour done the Olde Towne Team this year. Pitchers who relieve by profession get themselves ready swiftly enough when they get the call, even if they’re brought in with all the time they need to heat up when taking over for the wounded Starters don’t.

Being a starter by trade, given all the time he needed to warm up, Odorizzi went through as quick a version of his normal pre-start routine as he could muster in the moment. For him it was quick, but for the Red Sox it meant getting a good, acute, long look at him to determine just what he would or wouldn’t have coming in—and how they could or couldn’t exploit it.

And Odorizzi knew it going in.

“I was caught off guard by it, obviously,” Odorizzi said postgame, referencing the Garcia knee issue. “I didn’t know what was going on. I knew he was healthy coming into the game, so I was caught off guard by it. I think everybody was.

“My typical routine is out the window at that point,” he continued. “I hadn’t even stretched, thrown, anything, so it was going to take me a good while to warm up. I think all things (considered) — I’m sure it felt like forever for y’all — but for me, that was about the fastest I can warm up. Usually it takes me 30-plus minutes. I think I did it in under 15. So not ideal, and it’s not like it’s a fun warmup. You’re sitting there pretty much naked in front of the other team.”

Finally, the game got back underway, and the Red Sox showed how much they appreciate naked models with which to work.

Odorizzi dodged one bullet when Christian Arroyo’s long drive down the left field line banged foul off the box seat rail. But he couldn’t dodge Arroyo finally lining a base hit through the open right side, contravening the Astros’ defensive shift. Schwarber struck out swinging, but Kiké Hernández lofted a fly base hit to left.

This time, the ducks on the pond were set up for Rafael Devers, the Red Sox’s lefthanded hitting third baseman bothered himself by a balky forearm. But the forearm knew how to behave when it mattered the most. Devers pulled a 1-1 cutter that arrived up in the middle and a little inward high down the right field line and just inside and past the foul pole.

That second slice of salami tastes even better than the first. Especially with a little spicy mustard on it.

Xander Bogaerts popped out near first base, Verdugo dropped a jam shot into left for a base hit, but Martinez grounded sharply right back to Odorizzi to stop the Red Sox merry-go-round. But an 8-0 lead in two innings meant the music would play onward and upward.

With Eovaldi pitching a gutsy five and a third innings, Hernández himself cranked the music up a little further with one out in the top of the fourth. He yanked a 2-1, down-and-in  Odorizzi splitter into the Crawford Boxes. It was merely the fifth home run of the postseason for the streaky guy who once couldn’t convince the Dodgers he was worth everyday play.

Kike Hernandez

. . . and, Fox Sports getting cute demonstrating just how well Hernández sees pitches lately . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

The infielder-outfielder’s first Red Sox postseason’s success continued so dramatically that Fox Sports couldn’t resist developing a special visual to demonstrate how hitters on a roll are believed to see pitches coming their way—it showed Odorizzi’s splitter blowing up into a beach ball just after leaving his hand, floating up and down toward Hernández’s hitting wheelhouse.

According to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, also an in-game Fox analyst, the Red Sox hitters had a pre-game confab reviewing their attack plan against Astro pitching when Schwarber piped up with a plan of his own: “Let’s be like Kike,” the Schwarbinator said. “Spray balls all over the park. Hit ’em on top of the railroad tracks.”

Ask Hernández what turns him from a mere jack-of-all-trades with a little power and a modest career curriculum vitae into a weapon in the postseason lifetime thus far but into Hank Aaron in this postseason—especially after he was wrung out by a battle with COVID from late August through early September—and he’s either stuck for an answer or reduced to boilerplate.

“I don’t know,” he said when Rosenthal asked. “I guess feeling good. The importance of the game is allowing me to stay focused, stay locked in, not think too much about it. I’m just glad I’m able to put good at-bats, get on base, drive myself in to help us win, to get to this position.”

Sure. That oh-so-slight move forward in the batter’s box, especially on the breaking balls Hernández formerly had trouble handling, had nothing that much to do with it. From a lifetime .196 hitter on breakers in the regular season to a .700 hitter with three bombs on breakers this postseason. We’ll buy that not-think-about-it jazz—as soon as we make the last payment on that Antarctican beach club.

The Astros’s five runs seemed almost incidental compared to the Red Sox’s mayhem Saturday afternoon. With two out in the bottom of the fourth, Kyle Tucker drove one bouncing off the left field scoreboard wall to send Yordan Alvarez (walk) home, and Yuli Gurriel lined a two-run single the other way to right.

The next time they scored, in the bottom of the ninth, Gurriel hit a full-count fastball up from Red Sox reliever Darwinzon Hernandez into the Crawfords and, one out later, late-game catching insertion Jason Castro hit Hernandez’s 2-1 meatball over the center field fence. Compelling Red Sox manager Alex Cora to bring in Ryan Brasier to fool Jose Altuve into hitting a pitch on the strike zone’s ceiling to deep left for the game-ending out.

“We won the seventh, eighth, and ninth,” Baker said postgame. “But those two innings in the beginning, that’s a tremendous mountain to climb.”

In absolute fairness, the Astros’ pitching issues have proven a bump to the Red Sox’s plate formidability now. Even winning Game One the Astros were forced to get six and two thirds innings from their bullpen after starter Framber Valdez couldn’t get out of the third inning alive. Garcia being salamied on a balky knee meant eight bullpen innings Saturday.

Odorizzi gave the Astros’ proper relief corps a break Saturday, but José Urquidy—who hasn’t pitched since 3 October, and who carries a 4.14 fielding-independent pitching [FIP] rate for the regular season—is now listed to start Game Three. He’s a calculated risk even in Fenway Park, since the Red Sox team OPS was almost thirty points higher against righthanded than lefthanded pitching this year.

It also meant Odorizzi out of any Game Four plan, maybe not even a topic until a Game Six if the set gets there. It may mean Valdez having to start Game Four on short rest. Not to mention that the Astros can’t afford any more short starts—and once-formidable Zack Greinke isn’t exactly stretchable anymore. With his own regular season 4.16 ERA but 4.71 FIP, Greinke may even be a bigger risk now if he has to work past forty pitches.

Losing Lance McCullers, Jr. to a forearm muscle strain for the ALCS is hurting a lot more than the Astros bargained for, so far.

Cora bet the ranch that he could get away with a running of the bulls in Game One because Eovaldi would give the pen itself relief on Saturday and leave the manager the option of starting Nick Pivetta and Eduardo Rodriguez in the first two Fenway games, the order unknown at this writing. Cora won that bet.

It didn’t hurt that the Red Sox opened a traveling delicatessen in Houston Sunday with salami prominently on display, either.

Max the Knife comes up aces

Max Scherzer

Dodger fans asked Max the Knife for something he’d never had in his career before Wednesday night—a curtain call.

Nothing could spoil Max Scherzer’s mound premiere in a Dodger uniform Wednesday night. And it wasn’t for lack of trying by the Astros. Not even for lack of trying by one particularly brain dead Dodger fan down the right field line.

The Astros made a grand enough effort after Scherzer left the game following seven stellar innings and ten strikeouts marred only by a solo home run and an RBI single. They had to settle for losing by two runs instead of five.

The Dodger bullpen made a grand enough effort, too, letting the Astros pry three runs out of them including a two-run homer in the top of the ninth off Kenley Jansen before he finally struck out the side to end the 7-5 Dodger win without any further self-immolation.

The aforesaid meathead in the stands did his best to contribute to a potential overthrow, too. With two out in the top of the eighth, struggling Cody Bellinger playing right field, and Carlos Correa at the plate against his old buddy Joe Kelly, Correa on 1-0 lifted a long foul down the line. Bellinger had a running bead on the ball and a certain side-retiring catch ready and waiting.

Until he didn’t.

Bellinger jumped just enough to make the catch. Except that the idiot in a Mookie Betts jersey with a glove on his left meathook reached up to snatch the ball right before it would have landed in Bellinger’s glove. Some of the fans surrounding the jerk congratulated him. Others surrounding him looked as though they wanted to brain him.

Technically, the jerk didn’t quite cross the line into obvious fan interference. But you’d think even the most profit-hungering souvenir hunter would be smart enough to back down when the right fielder has a chance to end an inning with a catch just above the edge of the fence padding.

Instead of side retired, Correa got extra life against Kelly. He swung and missed for strike two immediately after the stolen foul out, fouled another off, then turned on a hanging slider and sent it almost halfway up the left field bleachers for the third Astro run of the night.

Dodger Stadium security removed the miscreant after Correa finished his trip around the bases. A few of the fans in the same region let the security people know just how happy they weren’t over that removal. They’d better be grateful that this wasn’t another World Series game.

They’d also better be grateful that not even jerks being jerks could spoil Scherzer’s first outing as a Dodger.

The packed, roaring house just gave Scherzer even more incentive to go forth and do what he tends to do best, refusing to let even Michael Brantley’s one-out bomb in the top of the first, or Kyle Tucker singling Yordan Alvarez home with two outs in the fourth keep him from his appointed ten punchouts thanks to an effective curve ball setting up the fastest fastballs he’s thrown all season.

“You live for this,” Max the Knife said after the game. “You live to pitch in front of 50,000 people going nuts.”

They went nuts enough that still-ailing Clayton Kershaw, his fellow three-time Cy Young Award winner, nudged Scherzer back out of the dugout after his outing ended to take what he’d never taken in his entire career to that point—a curtain call.

“With everything on the line, the way the crowd was, that was a high-adrenaline start, coming here,” the righthander continued. “Try not to do too much. Just pitch my game, go out there and do what I can do, and just try to navigate the lineup. The offense tonight went off.”

“Went off” was a polite way to put it. The Astros barely had time to let their opening 1-0 advantage sink in when Betts turned on Jake Odorizzi’s slider and sent it over the center field fence to lead the bottom of the first off. A walk, a swinging strikeout, and a Jose Altuve throwing error later, Will Smith turned on Odorizzi’s fastball and drove it into the right field bleachers.

One inning and one out after that, Betts struck again, hitting a 3-1 heater into the left field bleachers. An inning, two outs, and a walk after that, A.J. Pollock hit one over the left field fence and Odorizzi must have thought by then that he could have pulled an automatic pistol out of his pocket, fired toward the plate, and still watched the bullet travel out of the yard off the end of a Dodger bat.

The Astro righthander blamed poor mechanics since the All-Star break, but with a 4.95 ERA and a 5.06 fielding-independent pitching rate on the season you could almost wonder whether the Astros threw him up as a sacrificial lamb Wednesday night.

“My fastball has been flat,” Odorizzi said after the game. He could have said “flat-tened” and it wouldn’t have made a difference. “There are a lot of things I am working on between outings, but then I am reverting back to bad form.”

The bad news for the Dodgers was that such reversion threatened to ruin Jansen and them in the top of the ninth. He surrendered a leadoff single to Aledmys Diaz before Tucker sent a hanging cutter into the right field bullpen. Then Jansen re-horsed to strike Robel Garcia, Jason Castro, and pinch-hitter Meyers out swinging.

Nothing, though, could diminish Scherzer’s impact. Especially with the Dodgers in straits desperate enough in the starting pitching department. Walker Buehler and Julio Arias have had to hold fort while Kershaw’s forarm inflammation hasn’t subsided yet, and it’s already kept the lefthander out since early July.

Tony Gonsolin’s shoulder is inflamed likewise. Still-ailing Kansas City import Danny Duffy isn’t likely to be ready before September. And the execrable Trevor Bauer remains on administrative leave while MLB and the Pasadena police continue investigating sexual assault accusations against him.

The Dodgers hogged the headlines on trade deadline day when they swept in and snatched Scherzer (plus star infielder Trea Turner) from the Nationals and right out from under their downstate rival Padres’s noses. Now Scherzer had to live up to the headlines—just the way he forced himself to live up to the biggest noise of 2019 and pitch on nothing but fumes and will to keep the World Series-winning Nats in Game Seven just long enough to give them a chance to win it in the first place.

Manager Dave Roberts almost wasn’t worried. Almost. Buehler and Urias must have felt as though thousand-pound iron blocks were removed from both their shoulders after Scherzer’s evening’s work finished.

“From the moment I got to the ballpark, we got to the ballpark, you could just see that elevation, anticipation from our guys,” Roberts said post-game. “The buzz in the crowd from the first pitch, him taking the mound, donning the [Dodgers’ home uniform] for the first time—he delivered. He delivered. Just the intensity. It was so much fun. And it was just really cool to see the crowd smell it and want him to finish that seventh inning.”

“I mean, it’s Max Scherzer,” the Mookie Monster said post-game. “I think that kind of speaks for itself.” (In case you were curious, Betts had one hit—a double—in six lifetime plate appearances against Scherzer before they became teammates.)

For Scherzer, coming off the only mid-season trade of his distinguished career, and to the team he’d helped beat in the 2019 National League Division Series, the hardest part’s over. For now. “I’m a Dodger,” Max the Knife said. “It feels a lot more normal when you just go out there and pitch and win. Winning kind of cures everything.”

It might even get him the final home address of his career. Might.

If he keeps pitching the way he did Wednesday night, even at age 37, and nobody including Scherzer shouldn’t be shocked if the Dodgers decide to make it worth his while and his bank account to keep him in the family. At least until his arm finally decides to resign its commission a couple of years from now. Maybe with a couple of more World Series triumphs to its credit before he’s done.