By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If the Red Sox were playing with house money in the ALDS, then what, pray tell, are they doing now?
With resilience, the Red Sox fended off the 100-win, AL East-champion Rays, eliminating Tampa from the ALDS with back-to-back walk-off wins at Fenway Park. Surely, after Chris Sale followed up the Red Sox’ 5-0 Game 1 loss by serving up a grand salami in the first inning of Game 2, this outcome seemed hard to imagine.
And yet, here we are.
That’s more or less been the story of the 2021 Boston Red Sox from the get-go. A surprising 17-10 start in April, a surprisingly reliable pitching staff, a surprising rebound on the final weekend to save the season, a surprising Wild Card win, and some surprising toughness shown while absorbing the Rays’ best shots.
Somewhere along the way, we should’ve stopped being surprised by any of it — or by all of it. But that’s just sort of been the way this team has operated.
Certainly, even a fan covered in Red Sox tattoos could not have entered the season feeling overly optimistic about a playoff spot. Reasonable expectations had the team in the 82-86 win territory, competing for one of the two Wild Card spots but not necessarily grabbing it. And as they tapered off — going 12-16 in August, losing two of three to lowly Baltimore in the final week — they appeared to have been succumbing to those fatalistic expectations.
And when they fell behind the Nationals 5-1 on the final day of the regular season, when Chris Sale couldn’t make it through the third inning of the must-win game, it felt from the outside as though the walls were closing in on the Red Sox. But some clutch hits tied the game, the bullpen held, and Rafael Devers launched a two-run homer in the ninth to clinch Boston’s spot in the Wild Card game –at home.
They’ve since gone 4-1, shaking off an ugly loss in Tampa and recovering from that catastrophic start in Game 2. Now they’re relaxing, waiting to learn their ALCS opponent.
“We always said we had a good baseball team that had some holes, and we still have some holes. But at the end, for how bad it looked sometimes, we’re still here. We’re still in the dance,” manager Alex Cora said. “We’re still in the tournament, and we’re moving on to the ALCS.”
What’s wild is the manner in which these games were won.
Game 2 featured the steady rally after the grand slam, with five gutsy innings of relief from Tanner Houck, who looked like a madman while mowing down 11 straight Rays to begin his outing. Three home runs — from Xander Bogaerts, Alex Verdugo, and J.D. Martinez — and they blew it open with six runs over the final three innings.
Both Game 3 and Game 4 involved blown leads in the eighth inning. On Sunday, it was Hansel Robles. On Monday, it was Ryan Brasier. Those gut punches might have sunken other teams, but this year’s Red Sox have been on another level when it comes to shaking such things off with ease.
After those blown saves, here’s what the Red Sox got in the two games out of Garrett Whitlock and Nick Pivetta: 7.1 innings, three hits, two walks (one intentional), 10 strikeouts, and zero runs. Add in eight innings of one-run ball pitched by relievers (five innings from Houck, and one apiece from Brasier, Robles, and Matt Barnes) after Sale’s short outing in Game 2, and the bullpen had itself a monumental series.
That right there is absolute nails. And you can’t know that you’ll have that in October until the moment arises.
Game 4’s victory was unique too in that it was won in a manner that very few ballgames are won in modern-day MLB: with small ball. It started with a base hit by Christian Vazquez, followed by Christian Arroyo displaying the lost art of the sacrifice bunt.
“I don’t know if that was the first bunt of the year, but man, that was a hell of a bunt,” Kiké Hernandez said.
With the winning run on second base, Travis Shaw — who was playing for the Triple-A Nashville Sounds in August — watched as a fat fastball split the plate for a called strike two. From there, Shaw fought to just make contact. His dribbler to third base caused trouble, Yandy Diaz rushed his off-balance throw, and the winning run was suddenly on third base with one out.
At that point, Hernandez knew he didn’t have to do too much. He merely had to get the ball to the outfield. And he did.
#DirtyWater on repeat!
— MLB (@MLB) October 12, 2021
Hernandez said that when he trotted in from the outfield before the bottom of the ninth, he took a little extra time to get his mind in the right place, knowing that if he came to bat, the winning run would be on base.
“I had the chance to win the game [in Game 3] and I didn’t do it. I was thinking, walking to the plate, I was like I’m about to finish this game. This was last night. And the way that things were going at the time, I was like I’m about to make this place my place. That’s me talking to myself to pump me up, to make myself confident and get things under control. I didn’t get it done last night,” Hernandez said. “So jogging from center field to the dugout, I jogged a little slower than I usually do because I usually get on the field and off the field pretty quick because I just want to get there and get out, turn the page we’re on offense, turn the page we’re on defense now. I was just talking to myself. I was like, all right, this is our chance. If you get up to the plate, you’re going to have a chance to win the game, and you can’t let this situation get too big. You’re about to win this game, so you need to work on slowing everything down and slowing your breathing down and slowing the game down and starting early and making sure that you see the pitch, and you’re not just swinging at your shoes for no reason for trying to be a hero.”
Hernandez — whose two-year, $14 million deal in January wasn’t exactly front page news in Boston — has been immense for the Red Sox in October. With a five-hit Game 2 in the middle of his postseason, Hernandez is hitting .435 with a 1.266 OPS in the playoffs, with two homers, three doubles, and six RBIs.
He’s one of five Red Sox starters with an OPS over 1.000, with the Red Sox plating 32 runs in five games played.
Cora has gotten the most out of the pitching staff while mixing and matching his lineup however he sees fit in a given moment. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s worked.
“Man, it’s October. It doesn’t matter what happens. All that matters is getting that W,” Hernandez said. “I mean, you’ve seen it. All the starters, if they’re not starting that game, they’ve got cleats on and they’re in the bullpen and they’re ready to go. That’s our mentality, and that’s the mentality that good teams have, and that’s what it takes to win. Whatever it takes to win. When you have that mentality, good things tend to happen. I mean, that’s our motto right now — whatever it takes to win. Just win today, and we’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. Lineup, bullpen, starting rotation — it doesn’t matter. We’re a team, and we’re one. We’re not 26 dudes, we’re just one. We’re one. We’re a collective.
He added: “When things don’t go our way, we’re going to pick each other up. When things go our way, we’re going to hype each other up to make each other feel good and make that good really good confidence feel last longer. We’re playing really good baseball right now. That’s all that matters. We celebrated, quote, unquote, three times, and we’re looking forward to celebrating two more times.”
Whether they get those next two celebrations, well, some of us will continue to doubt their chances. They certainly won’t be considered favorites in the ALCS, and they’ll likely be underdogs again should they reach the World Series. That doesn’t seem to bother them … and based on the way Cora guides them to respond to such matters, it might even help them out.
As it stands now, though, the Red Sox have already accomplished far more than most anyone could have expected. They still have a long way to go to turn this year into one of those unbelievable sports stories – the kind that live on forever. For now, it’s been some ride. And it’s not ending any time soon.