The answer, in the end, is in the bullpen. It’s where Kevin Kiermaier’s crazy double ultimately came to rest. And lest there be any doubt, it’s where the Red Sox are currently winning this American League Division Series.
In the end, it’s hard to know which was more unlikely.
Did the Red Sox catch a break last night? You bet they did – and you shouldn’t feel any shame in admitting it. By now, after all those championships, you should know that luck plays a significant role. Loosely speaking, what happened at Fenway Park last night was a little like the tuck rule, the kind of play that leaves most everyone scrambling for answers. In 2002, it sure looked like a fumble – but technically it wasn’t. In 2021, it should be something more than a double – but according to the law, it isn’t.
So count your blessings and focus on the things you can control – like what has been coming out of the bullpen and not what has been going into it.
In the first three games of this ALDS with Rays, the Red Sox have allowed nine runs in the first inning, a 27.00 ERA that has been every bit as ugly as it looks. The rest of the time, in 28 innings, Sox pitchers have allowed six runs in 28 innings – a 1.93 ERA – while limiting the Rays to just 14 hits in 99 at-bats. In the first, the Rays are 10-for-18, a .556 average; after the first, they’re batting .141. Most of that work has been done by Alex Cora’s revamped October bullpen, from Nick Pivetta to Tanner Houck to Garrett Whitlock.
Tampa Bay was supposed to have a massive advantage as these games approached the later innings. Instead, the edge has belonged to Boston.
Here’s another thing that has surprisingly worked to the Sox’ advantage: matchups. The Rays are better against left-handed pitchers than right-handers, which seemingly makes it curious that Alex Cora will likely start a left-hander tonight for the third time in four games. But whatever outs Cora gets from Eduardo Rodriguez (or Martin Perez, perhaps?), he will consider them to be gravy. Once Cora goes to the bullpen, he will go to right-handers – and the micromanaged Rays will go to their weaker, left-handed-hitting lineup because that is what they do.
Of course, it all sounds easy – and it isn’t. Cora’s decision to leave in Hansel Robles late in yesterday’s game bit the manager squarely in the backside. (It sure felt like a time for Whitlock, Adam Ottavino, even Houck.) But the Sox somehow dodged the landmines, including the one off Kiermaier’s bat. As such, the Red Sox can now win this series tonight at Fenway Park and advance to the AL Championship Series, seemingly against all odds, though there is still work to be done.
This season, after all, there is only one word that could possibly describe the Red Sox’ play, from the beginning of the April to, now, the heart of October.