By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You might never see a better baseball game than the one played Wednesday night (and Thursday morning) in Houston.
Hyperbole? Maybe. But maybe not.
The back-and-forth Game 4 was like an old-fashioned heavyweight bout, with the defending champ exchanging haymakers with the up-and-coming challenger. Both the Red Sox and the Astros had to absorb what would be devastating blows to lesser teams, and both handled them with aplomb.
And by the end, the Red Sox had escaped with an ever-so-close 8-6 victory to take a 3-1 series lead — a game that ended with the bases loaded for the home team.
“Lotta back and forth,” Jackie Bradley Jr. said. “I got a couple of gray hairs. But I can dig the salt-and-pepper look.”
A win in such a circumstance requires the work of a good number of players. But it would save a whole lot of time to just look at the Red Sox’ outfield.
We can start at the end: Two outs, bases loaded, bottom of the ninth. Tying run at second, winning run at first. Closer Craig Kimbrel, trying to record the first six-out save of his entire career, was struggling to find the plate. He had already walked three batters and surrendered two hits, allowing a run and striking out just one batter.
Kimbrel needed some help.
And with Alex Bregman — who’s hardly made a single out this series — stepping to the plate, things looked dicey for the Red Sox. Bregman swung at a first pitch fastball and sent a sinking liner into shallow left fielder. Andrew Benintendi got a good jump on the ball and had a decision to make: attempt a diving catch, knowing that failure would lose the game, or pull up, surrender the single, and give Kimbrel a chance against George Springer.
Benintendi chose the former. It paid off.
“I wouldn’t have dove if I knew that there was any chance that it would have bounced,” Benintendi said. “I felt like I got a good jump on it, and timed it up pretty well.
“Outstanding — we do feel that we have the best outfield in the big leagues,” manager Alex Cora said after the win.
“Joy. We were going crazy,” J.D. Martinez said of his reaction.”Obviously it was an incredible catch. And at an incredible time. It was huge.”
Rewinding this one back to the eighth, it was the defensive play of Mookie Betts that proved to be quite significant.
It came on Kimbrel’s first batter of the night; his first pitch, in fact. It was a middle-middle fastball, and Kemp pulled it down the line in right field for a base hit. But he assumed he could get more and took off for second.
That was a poor decision.
Betts sprinted to the foul line, fielded the ball, and then in one motion, he spun and fired a strike to second base. Xander Bogaerts applied to a tag to the helmet of a diving Kemp, who was out for the first out of the eighth inning.
“That’s probably in the top three of my throws for sure,” Betts said. “I didn’t even see him going to second. I kind of knew off the bat he was going to go to second. It was one of those plays that I practiced so many times in spring training, and it just came in the game.
“When it was hit, I think that’s where a lot of — the separator, when it’s hit, your route to the ball and your effort getting to it, you have to be sprinting full speed,” Betts continued. “A lot of guys jog after it and just let it be a routine double. But I think, especially our outfield, we try and make those type of plays. That’s why we have some Gold Glove candidates for sure. And I think that’s where, one of those things where you just go out — and you practice it so much in spring training and kind of throughout the season, too, it’s just a matter of it showing up.”
It ended up being a big out, as Kimbrel hit the next batter (Bregman) and then allowed a double (Springer). One run came in on a fielder’s choice, before Kimbrel got out of the eighth with a strikeout of Marwin Gonzalez.
Betts’ defense also played a big role in preventing a first-inning homer, even though he didn’t make the play. While the ruling of fan interference on Jose Altuve’s would-be homer is sure to be debated for some time, the fact is that it’s an issue that never would have arisen if Betts hadn’t made a tremendous play on the ball in the first place.
Interestingly enough, it was Betts and Benintendi who made the dazzling defensive plays, and it was Bradley who provided the biggest burst of offense of the evening.
That came in the top of the sixth inning, with the Sox trailing 5-4 at the time. After Christian Vazquez doubled to deep right-center field, Bradley stepped to the plate and jumped all over a first pitch changeup from Lance McCullers Jr.
Bradley got all of it.
It was the third consecutive game that featured a huge hit from Bradley — who batted .234 this season. He hit a three-run double off the Monster to give Boston a lead in Game 2, he crushed a grand slam to put Game 3 out of hand, and he hit the homer in Game 4 that gave Boston a lead which they would not relinquish for the rest of the night.
Together, the outfield trio went 4-for-12 at the plate with two walks, and scored five of Boston’s eight runs.
Of course, the Red Sox got contributions from other places. Rafael Devers drove in two runs in the first inning, Xander Bogaerts had two separate RBI singles, Brock Holt worked a bases-loaded walk, and J.D. Martinez drove in an insurance run with a two-out single in the eighth.
On the mound, Rick Porcello was bad, but the work of Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes in the middle innings was outstanding.
In a game full of tide-shifting moments, ranking the significance of certain ones over others may be an imprecise science. But after taking a 3-1 lead in the ALCS, the Red Sox at least know this for certain: they’ve got one heck of an outfield.
They knew that prior to Wednesday night, of course, but it’s now shown up on the grand stage. As a result, that trio is just one win away from reaching the World Series for the first time.