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Oct 8, 2021; St. Petersburg, Florida, USA; The Boston Red Sox celebrate defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in game two of the 2021 ALDS at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One thing about the postseason – and in any sport: either literally or metaphorically speaking, you’re going to get hit. And in Game 1 on Thursday night, the Tampa Bay Rays punched the Red Sox in the face.

Last night, the Red Sox hit back.

For the record, let the record show that the Red Sox first absorbed another one squarely on the kisser, a grand slam by the anonymous Jordan Luplow in a five-run first inning that again had the Sox on their heels under the titled roof of Tropicana Field. Still, that came only after the Sox came out swinging and had grabbed a 2-0 lead on a night when Chris Sale clearly didn’t have it, raising serious questions about both the state of Sale and Red Sox starters as this series moves forward.

  • First, about the struggles of Chris Sale …

    Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Let’s start here: Sale really hasn’t been the same since he came back, which is to be expected. Pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery can typically take the mound after about 18 months but aren’t fully recovered until about two years out from the procedure. If Sale still looks the same next spring, there will be more cause for concern.

    That said, there has been a clear pattern here for anyone who has cared to notice. Sale’s last two starts have come on the standard four days of rest and gotten worse: a combined 3.1 innings, eight hits, seven runs, four walks and a grand slam. This season, on four days of rest, he has a 7.50 ERA while opponents have batted a whopping .400 against him. With more than four days, he has a 2.84 ERA while opponents have hit .219.

    If Sale starts in Game 5, it would be on four days of rest. If the Red Sox can get through this series, the Sox can more effectively manage Sale’s schedule and he could start two games in the American League Championship Series – both on extra rest.

  • Second, regarding the perfection of Tanner Houck …

    Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    With his five innings last weekend against Washington, one inning against New York in the wildcard game and through his first three innings last night, Tanner Houck pitched the equivalent of a perfect game: 27 up, 27 down, 15 strikeouts. So why don’t the Sox start him again? Good question. But consider the following:

    Against Sale last night, the Rays went with a lineup heavy on right-handed hitters, whom Houck dominates. (To this point in his career, switch-hitting Tampa phenom Wander Franco also has been better from the right side, vs. LHP.) Houck’s arrival immediately meant the removal of Jordan Luplow and the insertion of the left-handed-hitting Ji-Man Choi, who homered against Houck in the sixth. Regardless, right-handed batters last night went 0-for-9 with four strikeouts against Houck. Continuing to using Houck out of the bullpen allows Cora to match up earlier and, at the very least, forces Rays manager Kevin Cash to potentially burn his bench earlier in the game.

    “We’re in a good spot. We’ve got some guys that could go multiple innings. It’s not perfect,” Cora said of his pitching situation. “I mean, the plan was for Chris and for Eddie to go deep in the game (in Games 1 and 2) and then mix-and-match, but what Nick did yesterday and Tanner did today, we expect that from them. You know, we know we can actually pitch with (Tampa). We can get people out too.”

  • Third, as for the offensive approach …

    Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Aggressiveness can go a long way in the playoffs. After Kyle Schwarber opened the game with a four-pitch walk against rookie Shane Baz, Enrique Hernandez took a strike, then swung at the next four pitches. Xander Bogaerts came to the plate with one out and runners at second and third following a Hernandez double, then did something he rarely does: swing at the first pitch. The result was an RBI single that gave the Sox an immediate 1-0 lead.

    Obviously, Tampa subsequently hit the Sox with a haymaker in the bottom of the first. But the Sox kept swinging. Hernandez swung at the first pitch in the fifth and hit a game-tying homer. With two on, Alex Verdugo swung at the first pitch and drilled a liner to right. You get the idea. Even after the Rays posted a five-run first, the Sox didn’t wilt.

    “Them scoring five is not what you had envisioned, but team sports are all about picking each other up,” said Hernandez. “And that’s what we did as an offense.”

    The ending result?

    Don’t look now, but we may actually have a series.

    You can hear Tony Massarotti weekdays from 2-6 p.m. EST on the Felger & Massarotti program. Follow him on Twitter @TonyMassarotti.

     

    Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports