“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.