AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
As the 2021 Major League Baseball playoffs were getting underway last week, the general consensus on the Boston Red Sox was that they were just lucky to be there and, accordingly, that their stay would be brief.
The Red Sox themselves, however, have never been under any obligation to cooperate with outside prognostications. And so far, they aren’t.
They surely didn’t when they dispatched the favored New York Yankees in the American League Wild Card Game. After pulling off an even more shocking upset over the 100-win Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Division Series, they now find themselves running hot and needing just four more wins to get to the World Series.
For Game 3 on Sunday, it was Christian Vazquez who played the hero with a walk-off two-run home run in the bottom of the 13th inning at Fenway Park. For Game 4 on Monday, Enrique Hernandez took his turn with a game- and series-winning sacrifice fly in the ninth:
ANOTHER NIGHT, ANOTHER #WALKOFF!
THE RED SOX ARE ALCS BOUND! pic.twitter.com/81fxAr4cU0
With that, the Red Sox punched their ticket to their first American League Championship Series since 2018. They’ll face either the Houston Astros or the Chicago White Sox, whose ALDS matchup could conclude as early as Tuesday.
In all likelihood, the Red Sox will once again be underdogs whether they end up facing Chicago or Houston. But they ought to be used to that now, and there’s no longer any question that they’re indeed comfortable in the role.
Red Sox Players of the Game
- CF Enrique Hernandez: 1-for-4, 1 RBI. Duh.
- RHP Garrett Whitlock: 2.0 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 0 R, 0 K. Boston manager Alex Cora dropped the righty into a hornet’s nest in the top of the eighth inning, wherein the Rays had already tied the game with a pair of runs and still had a runner on second with nobody out. From there, though, he only needed 15 pitches to record six crucial outs.
- 3B Rafael Devers: 3-for-4, 1 HR, 1 R, 3 RBI. His three-run homer was the high point of Boston’s five-run third inning, and his three hits ran his total for the series to six. Not bad for a guy who’s playing with only one healthy arm.
- LHP Eduardo Rodriguez: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 2 R, 6 K. Though his bullpen let his 5-1 lead get away, the lefty nonetheless redeemed himself after a flop at Tropicana Field in the first game of the series.
Rays Players of the Game
- SS Wander Franco: 1-for-4, 1 HR, 1 R, 2 RBI. He may have temporarily put the Rays in trouble with an error in the eighth inning, but his two-run blast in the sixth was a big momentum swing. He finished the series with seven hits, including four for extra bases. The 20-year-old’s future is bright.
- CF Kevin Kiermaier: 2-for-3, 2 2B, 1 R, 1 RBI. The second of his two doubles made it a one-run game in the eighth, and his epic throw in the bottom half of the inning preserved what was then a 5-5 tie. Overall, the three-time Gold Glover was in vintage form in the field throughout the series.
- RF Randy Arozarena: 2-for-4, 1 R, 1 RBI. It was all for naught in the end, but “Postseason Randy” further added to his legend with a game-tying RBI single in the eighth and five hits and four walks for the series as a whole. And yeah, we’re still buzzing from his steal of home in Game 1.
The Red Sox Don’t Need Any More Than What They Have
After a last-place finish in the American League East in 2020, the Red Sox weren’t supposed to be a player in the AL playoff picture this year. Even after they became one, there were times (especially during their COVID-19 outbreak in August and September) when they seemed on the verge of imploding.
It took a dramatic comeback against the lowly Washington Nationals on the season’s final day for the Red Sox to so much as secure their 92nd win and a wild-card berth, and even then they tended to rank near or, in the case of MLB.com, even at the bottom of publications’ power rankings for the 10 clubs that made the playoffs.
The Red Sox earned some hard-won respect with a dominant 6-2 win over the Yankees at Fenway Park on Oct. 5 to earn a trip to the ALDS. Yet they looked like a poor match for the Rays on paper going in, and the actual on-field matchup wasn’t much different as the Rays easily won Game 1 and outscored Boston 10-2 through the first 10 frames of the series.
Four of those runs came on Jordan Luplow’s grand slam in the bottom of the first in Game 2, which lowered Boston’s chances of winning the series to just 20 percent:
Luplow with a 1st-inning slam! pic.twitter.com/D02cuVGy0I
Fast-forward to now, however, and the Rays probably aren’t the only ones looking around confusedly and wondering what the hell just happened.
More than anything, the Red Sox’s offense happened. After merely managing nine singles in Game 1, it responded by banging out 47 hits and 26 runs over the next three games. And all this against a Rays team whose 3.67 ERA in the regular season was the lowest in the AL.
Unexpected? Sure. But never impossible or even so much as improbable.
The Red Sox did, after all, scored more runs (104) against the Rays than any other team this season. Boston was also generally one of the best offensive teams in either league, which isn’t too shabby given that its lineup was only occasionally fully operational.
This is precisely what Boston’s offense was in the ALDS, and then some. Not a single one of the Red Sox’s key hitters—i.e., Devers, Hernandez, Xander Bogaerts, Kyle Schwarber, Alex Verdugo, J.D. Martinez and Hunter Renfroe—had a bad series. Hence how nine different hitters had at least five hits, with seven of them hitting at least one home run.
“If you break down the talent we have, yeah, we can hit,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Monday night, according to NESN’s George Balekji.
If Boston’s offense stays on this track, the team’s pitching will merely need to be good enough. That’s where there’s red flags aplenty, specifically with regard to the Red Sox’s iffy starting pitching depth underneath ace Nathan Eovaldi and a late-inning relief corps that blew two-run eighth-inning leads in Games 3 and 4.
Then again, who needs a surplus of arms when you’ve got a manager as savvy as Cora?
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
As is the case with any manager’s actions in October, there are nits to pick with how Cora handled his pitching staff in the ALDS. For instance, he might have avoided the aforementioned meltdowns in Game 3 and Game 4 if he’d gone to Whitlock sooner instead of Hansel Robles and Ryan Brasier, respectively.
But on balance, these are really the only two buttons that didn’t work after Cora pushed them.
He especially made game-saving decisions when he inserted Tanner Houck and Nick Pivetta for multiple innings in Games 2 and 3, respectively, ultimately resulting in nine total frames marked by one run and two victories. Cora’s pitching changes were also instrumental in holding Rays sluggers Brandon Lowe and Nelson Cruz to just four hits in 35 at-bats.
“We were all-in and they know it,” Cora told reporters after Pivetta’s heroics left the door open for Vazquez to win Game 3. “We might do it differently than other teams, but when you get to that stage, you take it day by day.”
If watching Cora do his thing feels familiar, that’s because it was only three years ago that he led the Red Sox to victory in the 2018 World Series. His year off in 2020 clearly did nothing to diminish his magic touch, as he’s now 15-4 in the postseason for his career.
After five games this October, what the Red Sox have proved is that beating them will require out-hitting their offense and out-maneuvering their manager. No matter who they encounter from here on out, both tasks will be the opposite of easy
What’s Next for the Red Sox?
Regardless of whether the Astros or the White Sox advance to the ALCS, the Red Sox will hit the road for Game 1 on Friday.
Since he’ll be on regular rest, chances are Eovaldi will take the ball for Boston. The question then will be if Cora wants to go with Rodriguez in Game 2, or take his chances with Sale even though he’s in a funk that dates back to early September.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.