By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Entering the postseason, the biggest concern for the Red Sox was bridging the gap to All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel.
But being the solid leader he is, Kimbrel decided to take some of that spotlight off of Boston’s collection of misfit toys in the bullpen on Tuesday night. He took a walk on the wild side in the ninth inning before eventually closing out the New York Yankees in the ALDS, as Boston hung on for a 4-3 Game 4 victory to secure their spot in the ALCS.
Kimbrel was nearly plunked by a beer can as he left the bullpen, a precursor for the close call that would come. Shockingly, that was one of the more accurate throws of the frame despite missing its mark.
Kimbrel came on with a 4-1 lead, and had fans reaching for the antacid as he promptly walked Aaron Judge on four pitches. Walking Judge isn’t the worst thing in the world. New York’s monster No. 2 hitter didn’t get a single pitch to hit, meaning he didn’t get a single pitch that he could have easily deposited in the right field bleachers (he crushed a solo shot off Kimbrel back in Game 1 in Boston). But Didi Gregorious followed Judge with a single, putting two on with no out with Giancarlo Stanton coming to the plate.
Stanton struggled all series and couldn’t take advantage of Kimbrel’s turbulence. He struck out on four pitches, looking silly as he flailed at a low breaking ball to bail out the struggling Kimbrel. It prompted a sigh of relief from the Boston faithful, but it was short lived.
Kimbrel’s control issues returned as he issued another four-pitch free pass, this time to first baseman Luke Voit to put a Yankee at every base. Voit did not draw a single four-pitch walk in 181 plate appearances during the regular season. Kimbrel’s next pitch was even worse, an errant curveball that hit Neil Walker on his right foot. Not exactly the execution you want with the bases loaded, as Judge waltzed home to make it 4-2. It was just the third time in their lengthy postseason history that the Yankees have scored a run on a hit-by-pitch.
It brought up catcher Gary Sanchez with a chance to hit one of the most dramatic grand slams in postseason history. He whiffed at a pair of 97 mph fastballs to fall into an 0-2 hole, but quickly worked the count full. Backsides everywhere were moved up to the edge of their seats as Kimbrel delivered another 97 mph fastball. Sanchez took a gigantic swing that sailed to deep left field, but he had gotten under it a little too much, and it safely landed in Andrew Benintendi’s glove for the second out of the inning. But another run scored, and the Yankees were within a run, 4-3.
Rookie Gleyber Torres had a shot at heroics, but hacked at a 1-2 Kimbrel offering, sending a slow bouncer to third. Eduardo Nunez made a great play to charge the ball and fire it to first baseman Steve Pearce, who made an even nicer stretch to corral the throw while remaining on the bag. A video review confirmed the play, and the Red Sox held on for the victory.
It was Kimbrel’s 336th save of his career and third in the postseason. It was also the first save he’s ever notched after allowing four batters to reach base safely. It’d be nice if he didn’t do that again anytime soon.
“I’m not going out there to try to do that; I’m going out to have a 1-2-3 inning. But in the end we got the win and we’re on to Houston,” a champagne-soaked Kimbrel said after the victory.
On Tuesday night, the bridge to Kimbrel was not the problem. Matt Barnes gave Alex Cora a perfect 1-2-3 sixth inning. Ryan Brasier did the same in the seventh. In need of a setup man for the eighth, ace Chris Sale was up to the task, needing just 13 pitches to set down the bottom of the New York order.
“We didn’t have a doubt in our mind about those guys,” said Kimbrel. “We know what they’ve got. Everyone goes through stretches that people want to jump on, but they’re pitching well and hopefully we can keep it up.”
So fittingly, on a night when getting to Kimbrel wasn’t an issue, Kimbrel himself was. We’ve seen these cardiac outings from the closer before, and he usually works through them without much damage. While concerns about their relief corps have festered for much of the season, there was always that reassurance that Boston had a strong anchor in Kimbrel. That anchor had a tough time catching ground (and finding the strike zone) Tuesday night, and nearly cost the Red Sox a series-clinching victory.
He got the job done in the end, but Kimbrel’s outing won’t make anyone feel better about Boston’s troublesome bullpen heading into a series with the defending World Series champs.