ALCS Game Three: Rock and troll

Carlos Correa, Eduardo Rodriguez

Rodriguez (right) couldn’t resist trolling Carlos (It’s My Time!) Correa as the top of the sixth ended . . .

Carlos Correa grounded out to end the Astros’s sixth Tuesday night. Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez couldn’t resist pointing to his wrist, trolling Correa’s becoming-more-familiar “It’s my time!” gesture whenever nailing a key Astros hit. There was a birthday boy in the house who wasn’t necessarily amused.

“No, no,” Alex Cora hollered, as Rodriguez returned to the dugout during the sides changing. “Don’t do that!” The last thing the manager wanted on his 46th birthday was any of his Red Sox poking the Houston bear they were taking down, before the bear could even think about stealing their picnic baskets.

Not even the pitcher who’d just pitched six solid innings the only blemish of which was a three-run homer two innings earlier. Not even while the Red Sox still held a six-run lead that finished in a 12-3 demolition giving the Red Sox a 2-1 American League Championship Series advantage and the Astros a monumental migraine.

An inning and a half worth of three-up, three-down baseball that looked to shape into a pitching duel between Rodriguez and Astros starter Jose Urquidy got ripped into a Red Sox demolition in the bottom of the second after starting as a mere tear. Two walks sandwiching a J.D. Martinez one-out double merely loaded the bases for Christian Vazquez’s line single the other way to right field and kept them there.

Oops. Christian Arroyo ripped one off the mound and off Astros second baseman Jose Altuve to send Martinez home with a second Red Sox run. Falling into an early 2-0 hole with ducks still on the pond against these Astros still seemed surmountable. Until Kyle Schwarber told them otherwise.

After taking ball one inside, ball two downstairs, and ball three just inside, Schwarber took Urquidy’s fastball around the middle halfway up the right field seats. It was the third salami slice for the Red Sox in three ALCS games. As if slicing two in Game Two wasn’t precedent enough, the Schwarbinator’s blast made the Red Sox the first ever to slice three in any postseason series.

Kiké Hernández followed Schwarber at once with a base hit pulled up the left field line, and Xander Bogaerts ripped a single up the pipe one out later, and finally Astros manager Dusty Baker got Urquidy out of there before the Red Sox could cover his grave. Yimi Garcia shook off a second-and-third-making wild pitch to dispatch Alex Verdugo for the side at last, but aftershocks were still to come.

They started an inning later, when Hunter Renfroe drew a one-out walk, stole second, then took third when Astros catcher Martin Maldonado’s throw to second bounced away from Altuve, before coming home on Vazquez’s floating base hit into short center. Then Arroyo drove Garcia’s slightly hanging slide into the rear row of the Green Monster seats.

The Astros may have punctured the impenetrable when Astros center fielder Kyle Tucker parked one into the right field seats with Michael Brantley (leadoff single) and Yordan Alvarez (one-out single banged off the Monster but played perfectly by left fielder Verdugo to hold him) aboard in the top of the fourth.

Two innings and three Astro pitchers later, Rafael Devers took a leadoff walk and the Astros got two outs quick enough to follow, especially center field insertion Jose Siri’s sliding catch running in long to take Verdugo’s floater into shallow center. Phil Maton then relieved Brooks Raley for the Astros, and he arrived just in time to feed Martinez something to hit into the Monster seats about as deep as Arroyo’s blast traveled.

Kyle Schwarber

The Schwarbinator slicing salami in the second to start the Red Sox romp in earnest . . .

Before this ALCS ends, the Red Sox may need to put new tires on the laundry cart into which they dump their home run hitters to celebrate the blasts in each moment. They’re already down to the last millimeter of tread as it is.

As if making sure the sealant on the first puncture held fast, Devers turned on Astro relieve Ryan Stanek’s first one-out pitch in the bottom of the eighth and sent that into the Monster seats, too. Renfroe’s diving catch on Correa’s two-out, opposite-field drive in the top of the ninth must have felt like the first mercy shown the Astros all night long.

Astros pitching coach Brent Strom wondered aloud whether his charges might be tipping pitches. Not willing to commit to that quite all the way, he acknowledged that—between the Red Sox’s postseason plate discipline and all-fields approaches and Astro pitchers falling behind in counts so often now—he’s more than a little concerned.

“This is a very good hitting team,” Strom said of the Red Sox, “and they’re very adept at picking up little things, much more so than most teams,” Strom said. “We need to be very cognizant of the little things, tipping-type things, things like that, that they’re very astute at. We’ve just gotten behind hitters.”

Cora said the Red Sox approach began changing when Schwarber came aboard in a July trade with the Nationals. “We were expanding,” Cora said, meaning the strike zone. “We didn’t walk too much, and when he got here and when he started playing, it was different. It’s a different at-bat, and other guys have followed his lead, and right now, like I said, this is the best I’ve seen this team this season offensively.”

Correa thinks the Red Sox aren’t picking up Astro pitch tips so much as they’re just doing their jobs at the plate when the Astros’ pitchers aren’t doing theirs on the mound. As an Astro, it’s murder for Correa. But as a baseball fan, pardon the expression, it’s a blast.

“It’s fun to watch as a fan of the sport, see how everybody in the lineup has the same approach,” the shortstop said. “They’re not chasing. They’re staying in the zone. They’re not swinging at borderline pitches. It’s beautiful what they’re doing. We’ve got to find a way to throw more strikes and keep the ball in the ballpark.”

But as much talk came about Rodriguez giving Correa a taste of his own celebratory medicine as about the Red Sox’s thorough dismantling of the Astros’ balky pitching staff and shaky offense—particularly their big three of Altuve, Brantley, and Alex Bregman now standing a combined 5-for-36 in the set so far—after the game finally ended.

Cora didn’t exactly hold it against Rodriguez, making a point of embracing his pitcher when Rodriguez returned to the dugout. But he still didn’t want Rodriguez or any of his players re-awakening the suddenly sleeping Astro giants.

“We don’t act that way,” he said postgame. “We just show up, we play, and we move on, and he knows. I let him know. We don’t have to do that. If we’re looking for motivation outside of what we’re trying to accomplish, we’re in the wrong business. The only motivation we have is to win four games against them and move on to the next round.”

Correa didn’t exactly mind. The way he spoke postgame, you’d have thought the Astros forgot about such concepts as bulletin-board fodder. “He did my celebration,” said the shortstop liable to command a nice free agency deal this winter, no matter his Astrogate past.

“I thought it was kind of cool,” continued Correa, who’d done his “It’s my time” wrist-tap in Game One after breaking a three-all tie with an eighth-inning bomb. “It’s just the way baseball should trend. I loved it personally . . . I keep it real all the time and say how it is.”

Rodriguez admitted he was caught up in the moment after getting Correa to end the sixth. Cora was stern but not exactly harsh with his pitcher back in the dugout. His embrace fit perfectly with Rodriguez’s previous insistence that Cora was like a father or older brother to his players as well as a manager.

“He understands that we’re not that way.” said Cora, whose Red Sox almost got humbled out of the races in the second half between injuries, COVID sufferings, and a bullpen remake. “We talk about humble approach and humble players, and that’s who we are. We like to grind, and we like to play, but we don’t do that.”

Well, good Lord, a team hammering and blasting its way to a rout can’t be faulted for being just a little less than humble in the moment here and there. Can they?

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.

“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.

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.